Archive for October, 2016

kissing-the-shotgunThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Christopher Brett Bailey is one of those theatre makers who does not make things easy for his audiences. His show This is How We Die, which toured the UK a couple of years back, pummelled us with weird ideas and anecdotes delivered at breakneck speed and ended with a loud performance by a rock band. Here, how we die again features highly, but the music takes on the prominent role in what could be described as a rock symphony in five movements, the fourth of which is spoken.

“This is a Hell dream” we hear repeatedly as the show begins in near darkness. If so, it is a dream to wake the neighbours.Think AC/DC or Metallica and then treble the volume. We are told that the decibel level reaches the equivalent of an aeroplane taking off and, mercifully, ear plus are provided if needed. Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy are the composer-musicians along with Brett Bailey.

With lighting designed by Lee Curran, the team creates the theatrical equivalent of an abstract painting. asking each individual audience member to make of it what they will, putting a shotgun to our heads and urging us to pull the trigger. The coordination of sound and lighting is highly complex and it has to be said, in fairness to all, that the performance being reviewed suffered from a major technical glitch, resulting in a lengthy unplanned interval. As the creators’ intent is to project a continuous flow of aural and visual images, building cumulatively, the break was unfortunate.

The spoken section begins in total darkness with the disembodied voice of Brett Bailey reciting a magnificently morbid poem that gives further context to the music. We are seated in crouch position on a plane seconds before it crashes, we lie helpless in a hospital bed connected to a network of tubes and we are tormented by a parasite growing inside us. “A suicide note is tattooed on your throat” the echoing voice warns. A Hell dream indeed and, after 70 minutes or so of being face-to-face with our own mortality, we wake to reflect on the horrors of the real world.

Performance date:7 October 2016


good-canaryIt is not often that directors become box office draws. In films maybe Hitchcock or Spielberg, but in theatre? Well what about John Malkovich? His name certainly seems big enough to get theatregoers scurrying out to Kingston without the attraction of an established writer or big stars. And his direction is good, very good, but the icing on the cake is that the writing and the acting are superb too.

American writer Zach Helm’s play, centring on drug addiction in literary  circles, comes very soon after Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things explored similar themes in the acting profession and there is hardly anything between the two works in terms of quality. Jack (Harry Lloyd) is a novelist who has just hit the big time, but he has a problem wife, Annie (Freya Mavor) who is hopelessly addicted to drugs and, at times, out of control. Jack’s publisher, Charlie (Steve John Shepherd) is eager to cash in on the success, but begs with Jack to keep Annie out of sight. Easier said than done.

Helm’s writing often has touches of David Mamet, sharp, snappy and incisive, but the big difference is that this is a play with real heart. Mavor is little short of sensational as Annie, catching the character’s mood swings with absolute assurance. She buys speed by the bucket load and works off her frenzies with frantic bouts of housework (can I borrow her please?), but she is on a spiral that is only going downwards. Ilan Goodman provides welcome light relief as her drug dealer, so unthreatening that he could be a pizza delivery boy. When Annie turns up at a cocktail party where guests include a vitriolic literary critic (Simon Wilson) pandemonium breaks out.

The cocktail party is one of three key scenes directed with precision by Malkovich, characters shuffling around in varying degrees of discomfort, This follows the housework scene when the projected backdrop takes on the life of a psychedelic cartoon. The third comes after Annie has returned from rehab; she and Jack embrace on the couch, staying silent as their dialogue appears behind them and a piano tinkles in the background. This emphasises that, apart from being a harsh tale of addiction, the play is also the most tender of love stories and Lloyd’s portrayal of Jack’s complete devotion becomes heartbreaking.

Helm is showing us that Annie’s addiction has become part of her destructive personality, part of who she is and that, when she and her drugs are seperated, she will not really exist. A bleak message perhaps, but this play is so compelling that it does not seem so. A deceit in the first act works well at the time, but seems to cheapen the play when thought about afterwards. Otherwise, this is quite an impressive achievement and one of the most enthralling productions seen so far this year.

Performance date: 6 October 2016

this-little-life-of-mine-park-theatre-l-r-kate-batter-izzy-_-james-robinson-jonesy-photo-by-charlie-round-turner-e1475715897910This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Who says that musicals need to have fantastical themes and exotic settings? Michael Yale seems to say not and goes out to prove it with a chamber musical about little lives in mundane places and, more specifically, about infertility.

Even the name Jonesy declares ordinariness, as the character of that name moves into a tiny new London flat somewhere in Zone 2 with his partner Izzy. He likes occasional drinks with his mates, her favourite film is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“the one about the skinny prozzy with a wet pussy” Jonesy reminds her). They struggle to make ends meet, but have a fun lifestyle, even dabbling in swinging with a friendly couple. But then the urge to expand the family grows stronger and Jonesy’s sperm count lets them down. They try and they try but their failure to conceive drives a wedge between them.

Act I of the show jumps around far too much before settling on a steady course. James Robinson and Kate Batter are both charming in the central roles, but much of their spoken dialogue feels badly stilted, and only the injection of some sharp jokes makes it bearable. However, when it comes to providing the lyrics to fit with the moods and melodies of Charlie Round-Turner’s lovely music, Yale’s writing comes alive to make this a musical that really is all about the songs.

All the minor characters are played by just two actors, both making enormous contributions – Caroline Deverill’s guises include an office slut and Jonesy’s controlling mother; Greg Barnett moves from a singing barista to a gynaecologist among others. They are also the couple in the swinger scene, joining Robinson and Batter in some eye-poppingly raunchy choreography. Comedy numbers, such as this and the lively Just One More, when Jonesy stays on too late in the pub, lighten the mood, but most of the songs are haunting romantic or sorrowful solos and duets.

Robinson accompanies himself on guitar for the simple love ballad Bella Rose and Batter, whose voice has a beautiful clarity, sits alone at a bar table like a torch singer to perform Drinking Alone. Most memorably, as the couple’s relationship hits the rocks, Jonesy leaves the flat, but remains visible through a screen and he duets with Izzy, both singing “…sometimes I confess that I wish I loved you less…” each unheard by the other. This heartbreaking scene sums up in seconds the devastating effect when channels of communication between a devoted couple become lost and it typifies how song is used in the show to express human emotions in ways that spoken words fail to do.

In turns, rude, romantic and real, this is undoubtedly a show that needs more work, but it has loads of potential to grow. The publicity invites us to “be at the birth of a brand new British musical” and it is an invitation well worth accepting.

Performance date: 5 October 2016

Photo: Charlie Round-Turner


boysbandThis review was originally written for The reviews Hub:

When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened in New York in 1968, it raised many eyebrows, but, today, the only thing shocking about it is the fact that anyone ever saw it as shocking.

The play centres on a raucous birthday party to which Michael (Ian Hallard) has invited five other gay men in honour of their friend Harold. First to arrive is the neurotic Donald (Daniel Boys), followed by the flamboyant Emory (James Holmes); “you can take her anywhere but out” we are told. Then comes Bernard (Greg Lockett), a black man dubbed “Queen of Spades” and, finally, the insecurely coupled Larry (Ben Mansfield) and Hank (Nathan Nolan). Emory’s $20 birthday gift for Harold is a dimwitted, muscular “cowboy” (Jack Derges)

Preparations are interrupted when Michael gets a phone call from Alan (John Hopkins), a supposedly straight friend from college days, who then turns up to the party uninvited, clashing head-on with other guests. This unconvincing character is written weakly, always feeling like no more than a very obvious device introduced by Crowley to serve as a catalyst for the drama, particularly in a soul-baring game that Michael gets the intoxicated partygoers to play.

We have to wait until seconds before the interval for the arrival of Harold, in the inimitable form of Mark Gatiss. Dressed in a pitch black suit with matching hair, Harold announces himself as “a 42-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jewish fairy”, thereby illustrating Crowley’s reliance on self-deprecation as a source of humour, Withering put-downs also feature highly, with characters spitting out insults like poisoned darts, using many expressions that would fall foul of political correctness rules in these more enlightened times.The comedy bubbles enjoyably in Adam Penford’s nimble production for as long as it lasts, but then things turn serious.

Written at a time when homophobia and racism were embedded deeply in social attitudes and popular culture, the play starts to feel most dated when it becomes darker. Hallard’s tormented Michael now dominates impressively, but the problem is that concerns affecting the LGBT community now are different from those of 48 years ago. The issues discussed frankly here would have made this an important play when it was first staged, but now those issues seem to belong to the distant past and the play feels slight,

Michael’s swish apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is realised beautifully in Rebecca Brower’s set design, complete with posters of movie goddesses looking down from high on the assembled revellers. Dated though the play is, the set and a tip-top company give this revival a distinct touch of class.

Performance date: 4 October 3016


The We Plays**** (Hope Theatre)

Posted: October 1, 2016 in Theatre

A couple of years ago, I ended my review of The Me Plays with the words: *Andrew Maddock is a talent to be watched”. Well Andrew, thanks for inviting me to see this follow-up and thanks even more for proving me to have been absolutely right. As before, the plays could be described either as acted-out poetry readings or monologues in rhyming prose. Whichever, they are in a style that common sense dictates should divorce them from the real world, yet actually has exactly the opposite effect. Both characters here are outwardly comic, but their stories are raw and gritty, Maddock loving to lead the audience in one direction and then change course to visit dark places, before returning to the main road of optimism.

cyprus-sunsets-the-we-plays-2CYPRUS SUNSETS, directed by Phil Croft, begins with its character sitting cramped on a charter flight, waiting on the tarmac for take-off to Cyprus, the destination where he has spent his Summer holidays since the age of 17. Back then he was with his beer-swilling mates, more recently he had been with his beloved girlfriend, but now he is alone. Contemptuous of other passengers on the plane and, in particular, their unruly children, he could be a borderline sociopath. As in the previous plays Maddock calls him “Me”, inviting suggestions of an autobiographical element and, also similarly, much of what he writes is about the pain of not growing up. However, this time “Me” is played by another actor, the excellent John Seaward. Brash and laddish, he gyrates to ghastly Europop, but, underneath the joviality, there are clear signs of depression and the sunsets that have marked high points in his life take on another significance as he looks out from his hotel room balcony. Delving into this, Maddock explores in stark terms a form of human tragedy that is rarely studied from a male perspective and “Me” takes on another dimension. Most touchingly, the character comes to re-evalute everything, including the fellow travellers that he had sneered at earlier, and the sunset is followed by a dawn that reveals to him that life itself can be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Maddock demonstrates that the most profound of statements are often best made in the simplest of forms.

irn-pru-the-we-plays-1IRN PRU, directed by Ashley Winter,  introduces us to a character seemingly too much larger-than-life to be real, but I have actually met this lady (name withheld for legal reasons) and I can attest that every detail in the writing and Jennifer O’Neill’s performance is exactly right. Dressed in a tartan kilt, with a Viking helmet covering her flame red hair, this Glasgow lassie’s full name is Prucilla Elizabeth Ally McCoist a Wee Dash of Salt N’ Pepa Leigh. Presumably her family had little time for Celtic FC or for conformity. She extols Michele Mome as her lifestyle guru, without quite realising that this is not the perfect match, as she plods around job interviews, refusing to compromise over who she is and what she stands for. Female, Scottish, loud and ferociously proud, she ends up having an unfortunate dalliance with a security guard at a newly-opened Waitrose, but carries on undeterred. Maddock and O’Neill give a type of majesty to this defiant soul, making us believe that she really can take on the world and win.

Two little gems and Andrew Maddock becomes even more a talent to be watched.

Performance date: 30 September 2016