Archive for March, 2017

The Monkey (Theatre 503)

Posted: March 9, 2017 in Theatre


If Quentin Tarantino had ever directed an episode of Only Fools and Horses, the result could have been something like John Stanley’s new 90-minute play The Monkey.  The production is mounted by Synergy Theatre Project as part of their Homecoming season, featuring plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners. If Stanley is drawing from personal experience in his account of drug-abusing petty criminals,  it is to be hoped that he has “exapperated” (malapropisms occur regularly) the psychopathic tendencies of his central character, Tel.

Morgan Watkins’ Tel is volatile and threatening, the character modelling himself on Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. He is so offended by the gormless “Thick-Al” (George Whitehead), who owes him a monkey (a glossary of Cockney rhyming slang provided with the text comes in handy), that he interrupts his breakfast of a single Jaffa Cake and Coke (the drink) and offers him a makeover to give him the Vincent Van Gogh look. Following another bout of violence, he asks his dim-witted buddy Dal (Daniel Kendrick) whether he still has a chance with his on/off girlfriend Becks (Danielle Flett), having just tried to strangle her and he reflects fondly on the transformative moment in his life when, at the age of eight, he saw Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. Tel is not a nice man, but liking him is the play’s guilty pleasure and Watkins is towering in the role.

Cleverly, Stanley taps into a vein of British humour that associates itself with “Sarf” London rogues and runs through the Ealing comedies, PorridgeOnly Fools…etc and his dialogue is as sharp as the knife that Tel wields with menace.  The play is about people who are trapped in a spiral of criminality, but Stanley finds no time to expand on their hopelessness or to introduce pathos and the play tails off disappointingly without the touch of irony that it needs. However, the laughs come thick and fast, director Russell Bolam keeping the production bubbling so that we hardly care that the characters and situations have little depth. Good black comedies have been a rarity of late. but, on the the evidence of this ferocious and ferociously funny play, Stanley has the flair to reinvigorate the genre.

Performance date: 8 March 2017

Photo: Simon Annand

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


We think of EM Forster and we think of stories about the English upper classes at home and abroad in the early part of the 20th Century. Science fiction we regard as the territory of his contemporary, HG Wells, so it comes as a surprise to discover that Neil Duffield’s 85 minute play is an adaptation of a 12,300-word short story by Forster, The Machine Stops, originally published in 1909. Even more surprisingly, Duffield suggests to us that Forster could have inspired the invention of Skype.

Forster imagines a future in which Earth’s human population has been driven underground to live in isolation, discouraged from direct contact with others and from travelling. There is no need for people to go to see things when those things can come to them in their own subterranean cells. It is an Orwellian nightmare in which the Machine, a sort of forerunner to Big Brother, controls everyone’s lives. The story has two protagonists: Yoshti is a lecturer on “the Australian Period”, communicating remotely with the outside world and conforming strictly to the rules of the Machine; her rebellious son Kuno lives on the far side of the planet and is eager to break free from the Machine to explore life on the surface.

Using a prototype of video chatting, Kuno persuades Yoshti to board an air ship and visit him so that he can relay to her the joys of seeing the sun and making direct contact with real life. Essentially, the original novella centres on a conflict of ideologies and Duffield’s difficulty in translating this to the stage comes with generating dramatic tension. The adventurous youthful optimism of Rohan Nedd’s Kuno is endearing, but Ricky Butt’s Yoshti is an icy figure indeed, drained of all signs of maternal affection. This interpretation of the character takes literally the Machine’s rule that parental responsibilities end with giving birth and the absence until near the very end of an emotional connection between mother and son leaves a hole at the heart of this adaptation.

Fortunately, Juliet Foster’s vivid and imaginative production offers more than a little compensation for weaknesses in the drama. Rhys Jarman’s set design resembles a large climbing frame constructed around a small cell for a single occupant. Two performers (Maria Gray and Adam Slynn) clamber acrobatically around the frame and they, aided by Tom Smith’s superb lighting design and eerie music composed by John Foxx and Benge, create striking impressions of the Machine in motion.

The details of the future foreseen by Forster may not have been as specific as shown in this production, but still his prescience is astonishing. Effectively, he predicted an age when our lives would be run by a machine, encompassing instant messaging, telecommunications, virtual reality and commercial air travel, over a century ago and then he went on to ask what would happen if the machine was to malfunction and stop. Chillingly, that is something that remains to be figured out.

Performance date: 7 March 2017

Photo: Ben Bentley

diaryThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Flower power and hippies may have deserted San Francisco by 1976, but Marielle Heller’s play, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, tells us that they left behind traditions of free love. Diary of a Teenage Girl is based around the daily tape-recorded ramblings of 15-year-old Minnie as she trips tentatively into the world of adults. dabbling in promiscuity and hallucinatory drugs.

Rona Morison’s Minnie is lively, naive, inquisitive and mischievous. She aspires to being older than her years, living with a divorced mother, Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn), who tries desperately to be younger than hers. Charlotte’s current boyfriend, Monroe (Jamie Wilkes) is a weak-willed waster and her straight-laced distant step dad, Pascal (Mark Carrol) feigns concern while sleeping with her slutty best friend, Kimmie (Saskia Strallen). And so, Minnie seduces Monroe and things start to get hot.

As coming of age tales go, the play is not particularly remarkable. It is mildly amusing rather than hilarious and it relies very heavily on the likability that Morison gives to Minnie to carry it through some soggy patches. Most telling is the central character’s growing feeling of empowerment. “I’m better than you” she tells Monroe with conviction and her determination to exploit new opportunities opening up for women gives the play meaning and raises it above the level of broad comedy.

Heller sprinkles the “f” word liberally over her dialogue in a work that, by modern standards, tries too hard to be bold. This may be explained by reminders everywhere in this production, directed with pace by Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank, that we are back in the less enlightened era of flared trousers, sideburns and glam rock. Andrew Riley’s set and costume designs are sharply evocative. An attic bedroom with patterned wallpaper and a huge skylight is Minnie’s base and projected graphics link to the play’s origins, as does Minnie’s likely future profession, a cartoonist. To top everything, David Bowie, T Rex and Neil Sedaka provide the soundtrack.

All this may have considerable nostalgic appeal for fifty somethings, but it will speak less loudly to a modern generation used to mobile phones, Facebook and internet dating. Therein lies the problem that this production fails to overcome. Although the play does not belong to the era in which it is set and some of its themes are timeless, modern relevance becomes obscured by period detail and candid treatment of sexual activities, which may have been daring in the 1970s, now seems merely quaint.

Morison is pure joy, heading a spirited cast, and there is evidence throughout that a great deal of loving care has been put in by all involved in the production. However, the question that lingers is whether this play, which is quite modern but feels badly dated, is really deserving of their efforts.

Performance date: 6 March 2017


titleThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


The absurdist works of Eugène Ionesco are so unconventional that they could feel out of place on a regular stage in front of an audience seated in rows. Perhaps with this in mind, Marianne Badrichani comes up with the not-so-absurd idea of performing them at an elegant dinner party with the audience becoming diners sitting around a long table, sipping glasses of French wine.

The Romanian-born French writer had his hey days in the middle of the 20th century, but his plays are seen less often today. Adapting extracts from the plays, along with Edith Vernes, Badrichani fuses Ionesco’s writing with a peculiarly English strain of upper class eccentricity and it proves to be a match made in Heaven. We are ushered in by a camp butler (Jorge Lagardia) and a saucy maid (Sharlit Deyzac), both looking as if straight out of a Feydeau farce and our hosts, the Smiths, take their places at opposite ends of the table. Mr Smith (Sean Rees) displays his “typically English” thin moustache, exudes smoke and reads the Daily Mail; his refined and graceful wife (Lucy Russell) argues with him from a considerable distance. The main guests, the Martins (David Mildon and Vernes) are late.

The evening plays like a mash-up of Ionesco’s greatest hits: the family whose members are all named Bobby Watson; the strangers who meet and discover that they are married to each other; the Spanish fire chief (Lagardia) who has a problem with the letter “f”. Each segment seems like a sketch in a revue and perhaps we have seen them all before and know the punchlines well, but this is definitely a case of familiarity breeding contentment. The six actors tune in perfectly to the ridiculousness of their characters and give us an absurdly enjoyable evening.

The surreal nature of the event is heightened in a sequence during which diners are blindfolded and Ionesco himself (Rees) appears in two brief sequences, answering questions (in French) about his works. However, this show is overwhelmingly about comedy and Badrichani’s concept spotlights how absurdism is prominent in British humour, seen in The Goon Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and so on. The big surprise comes at the end when we remind ourselves that Ionesco was, in fact, French.

Performance date: 4 March 2017


im-gonna-pray-so-hard-for-you-finborough-theatre-c-scott-rylanderThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


It is tricky to review a play that begins with a savage diatribe against theatre critics. Halley Feiffer’s forensic study of the darker side of theatre sees successful playwright David convening with his daughter Ella, an actor, to await the first reviews of an off-Broadway production of The Seagull, in which she has played second female lead. Preparing her for the worst, he tells her not to resent the critics, but to pity them and pray hard for them.

If Feiffer sees critics as a malign force in theatre, she tempers her argument with the admission that her characters’ professions feed off the adulation that only they can give. Little mention is made of audiences. She sets up the play to become a cosy, heartwarming little drama in which father gives loving consolation and daughter gains strength from it, but then she delivers quite the opposite. This late night chat, fuelled by white wine and cocaine, turns into a brutal conflict in which David sets about destroying Ella with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. He tells her that she is “interesting” rather than beautiful, handing out the back-handed compliment that actors crave least, before he shatters her confidence to little pieces.

Feiffer’s writing occasionally has the ferocity of Albee, spotlighting the venom that runs in this family’s bloodline and through theatre itself. Love may be offered, but is never reciprocated. There are suggestions of black comedy, but wit and irony never surface strongly and director Jake Smith opts to play it as raw drama, allowing two forceful and loud performances to dominate his production, set mainly in Anna Reid’s compact design of a modern Manhattan apartment.

Adrian Lukis plays David as a bullying, egotistical tyrant, eager to exploit his daughter’s vulnerabilities in order to control and manipulate her. He wants her to be a writer, not an actor. He tears into critics, actors, directors and his fellow writers without mercy. Is Arthur Miller really as bad as he describes him? Jill Winternitz’s Ella moves between shy nervousness and near-hysteria, hanging on every word of her father’s oft-told anecdotes as she struggles to avoid confronting her own demons.

90 minutes of theatre navel-gazing ends with a short second act, more an epilogue, in which Feiffer suggests that David may have helped Ella’s career by toughening her up, but at the expense of her inheriting his streak of cruelty. This is the bleak final vision of a play that is high on rancour. but low on heart.

Performance date: 2 March 2017

Photo: Scott Rylander