Archive for April, 2017

Whisper House (The Other Palace)

Posted: April 19, 2017 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Anyone who can turn a Frank Wedekind play into a hit musical is worthy of respect and so be it with Duncan Sheik. His 2006 show Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway and won multiple Tony awards, although its West End run was shorter than it deserved. Sheik’s style of angry rock matched well with a drama of 19th Century adolescent angst, but the question now is whether it suits a tale of the paranormal.

The setting is a lighthouse off the north-east coast of America, the time is during World War II. U-boats swarm around and still more sinister forces are at work inside. Christopher (Fisher Costello-Rose and Stanley Jarvis share the role) is a young boy who is effectively orphaned, his mother becoming suicidal after his father’s death. He is sent to live with the lighthouse keeper, his crippled Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington), a lonely and embittered spinster, and her helper Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh), who is Japanese and not welcomed by all in his adopted country at this time. The local Sheriff (Simon Lipkin) does his best to evict him.

When Christopher becomes aware of the presence of two ghosts (Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry) the story, a meeting of childhood innocence, adult guilt and revenge from beyond the grave, takes on key elements of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, adapted into an opera by Benjamin Britten. Of course, Sheik’s style is entirely different and, much as his music has the ability to convey strong emotions, it fails to suggest creepy, supernatural forces. When it needs to whisper, it shouts.

Whisper House began life as a concept album, as did early works by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who recently acquired The Other Palace to showcase new musicals. A seven-piece band, conducted by Musical Director Daniel A Weiss, sits in a crescent behind a circular performance space which descends into a pit. This semi-staging gives director Adam Lenson little to work with to conjure up an atmosphere of sinister suspense, just murky lighting and sea mists, but powerful performances, particularly by Pilkington and Goh give real meat to the drama.

The show, conceived with Keith Powell, has a book by Kyle Jarrow, who shares credit with Sheik for the lyrics. Jarrow gives the show modern relevance by suggesting parallels between the plight of an alien in 1940s America and attitudes towards refugees there now. The story is told almost entirely by spoken word and the songs are sung almost entirely by Bailey and Perry, thereby creating a strange separation in which the ghosts become mere observers and commentators, little integrated into the main narrative until very late on.

Overall, the show feels disjointed, the song lyrics not connecting fully with the story, nor the music with the paranormal themes, nor the ghostly presences with the earthly drama. Perhaps a lot more work is needed to weld all this together seamlessly, but, in the meantime, Sheik’s thrilling rock anthems still provide plenty to enjoy.

Performance date: 18 April 20


Someone must have a sense of humour to put on this show just outside the boundaries of the City of London, where quite a few people over the years have made a pile for themselves, seemingly without doing very much to earn it. However, if you’re planning to pick up a few tips here before continuing west, be warned that everything you’ll see is at least half a century out of date.

The big point of interest in revisiting this 1961 award winning Broadway hit is the involvement as composer and lyricist of Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, but the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, from an original by Shepherd Mead, now feels pretty ropey. Following the recent revival of Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse, we now pay a second musical visit to a New York office block in the early 1960s and, in terms of meeting the needs of the show, the songs here are arguably at least as good.

The plot follows ambitious young window cleaner J Pierrepont Finch (Marc Pickering) as he gets hold of a self-help manual with the show’s title and sidles his way upwards through the ranks of a New York company. Although not specified, it is a fair guess that the first tip in the manual could be “be born a man”, as the role of women in this company is laughably archaic. While the guys get all the plum jobs, the gals bide their time as secretaries or receptionists and dream of being whisked away to live happily ever after in New Rochelle, where they can cook, clean and tend for their brood. As inspiration for 21st Century women, this is a show that can take its place alongside The Taming of the Shrew, but, back in 1961, sweet secretary Rosemary (Hannah Grover) gets her tentacles stuck into Finch with exactly those dreams in her mind.

The satire lacks bite, the comedy is predictable and dated, but then there are the songs. Even if this show is lesser Loesser, the punchy lyrics and catchy show tunes are still worth hearing as they build up to two outstanding numbers in a second half that is immeasurably better than the first. Pickering gazes into a washroom mirror, singing I Believe in You, with the the chorus behind the urinals and then he moves up to the board room to lead the company on Brotherhood of Man. Rising to the quality of this material, director Benji Sperring’s production now finds the essential ingredient of Broadway pzazz that it had lacked earlier, Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets a kick in its steps and Ben Ferguson’s fresh orchestrations shine.

Pickering shows all the guile of a backstabbing career ladder climber, but often forgets to add the charm that would make his antics credible. His rival, the boss’s nephew Bud Frump is made creepily nasty by Daniel Graham, Andrew C Wadsworth shows dithering authority as the boss himself, JB Biggley, and Lizzi Hills has great fun as Hedy La Rue, his tarty bit on the side who does not do shorthand but can type at the phenomenal rate of 10 words a minute. Mike Lees’ office set in front of sliding elevator doors is well used and his period costumes, particularly the garish ladies’ dresses, are a delight. If the production does not quite succeed in making this a show for 2017, it is not for want of trying.

.Performance date: 15 April 2017

46 Beacon (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: April 13, 2017 in Theatre


46 Beacon is the address of an apartment building in central Boston, ideal for transients such as actors to take out short leases. Robert (Jay Taylor) is such an actor, coming from London to perform in a city where English accents are revered. One night he brings home with him a schoolboy, Alan (Oliver Coopersmith), who is working as a part-time waiter at the theatre restaurant. His intention is seduction.

In many ways, the genders of the two characters in this new play by London-based American writer Bill Rosenfield are irrelevant, as he is simply offering a version of the familiar coming of age story, showing an encounter that will be quickly forgotten by the experienced party, but forever remembered by the newly initiated one. However, in other ways, the play is more specific, being set in 1970 when the word “queer” was just being replaced by “gay” in everyday vocabulary. Robert makes reference to another play, Mart Crowley’s  The Boys in the Band, which, when revived in London recently, seemed dated because of the expressions of feelings of guilt by its characters. Notwithstanding Alan’s nervousness, there is no guilt here, the pair seeming as confident in their sexuality as are their equivalents in the modern day LGBT community. The framing of the narrative, looking back on the evening from the distant future, emphasises that the play’s attitudes belong to the 21st Century and not to the time of its setting.

Taylor’s Robert is a nonchalant serial seducer, much older than Alan is able to guess, but not a cynical predator. He knows that Alan may be theatre mad and slightly star-struck, but also he senses correctly that he is a willing party to the seduction and fully aware of what is happening. Richard and Alan begin tentatively with gin & tonics followed by foot massages and then they circle each other suspiciously, as if engaged in a mating ritual. Their awkward exchanges bristle with lively wit. Dictated to by the needs of comedy, Rosenfield writes Alan as smarter and more quick-witted in repartee than feels natural for one so young, but Coopersmith compensates with a performance of beguiling innocence that embraces the as yet unsullied wisdom of youth.

Robert informs us at the beginning that his account of meeting with Alan will last precisely 83 minutes and Alexander Lass’s gently humorous production delivers on that score, the audience sitting around the borders of the bedroom in this perfectly suited studio space. The play’s most poignant moments come after the seduction is complete. Alan emerges from between the sheets to mimic, delightedly, the scene from Stephen Sondheim’s Company in which a one-night stand parts from another Robert (“Bobby”) on her way to Barcelona and then he begins to absorb his first lesson on how casual sex and emotional entanglement relate to each other. This is the key area that Rosenfield is examining throughout a play that is consistently perceptive, truthful, tender and funny.

Performance date: 13 April 2017


Pleas of “not guilty due to diminished responsibility” can often arouse suspicions among the uninformed that lawyers and others are out to manipulate the legal system for their own ends. Sam Hoare’s new play begins with the intriguing situation of a woman, Mary (Lindsey Marshal), facing imminent trial, insisting that that she knew exactly what she was doing and was in full control of her actions, while her psychiatrist, Dr Parker (Rufus Wright) and her lawyer/friend, Layla (Tamla Karl) insist that this was not the case.

The persistence of the professionals in the face of opposition from their patient/client makes an absorbing 25 minutes of drama and then, the crime is specified – Mary’s murder of her child, who was suffering from a cruel disorder – and the play changes direction to ask whether the pressures placed on a mother in such a situation must inevitably lead to responsibility for her own actions being diminished. It feels odd that a drama that runs for only 75 minutes would take so long to declare what it is actually about and even odder that Hoare drives the plot up side alleys at interval during the remaining 50 minutes. Does it really matter whether Mary may be having an affair with Dr Parker or whether Layla may be doing likewise with Mary’s husband Adam (Gwilym Lee)? And do we really need to hear so much of the back story of Mary’s prison visitor Celia (Wendy Nottingham), another mother who had been placed in a similar predicament?

Finding its focus and keeping it are the play’s chief problems, but dialogue that often feels unnatural is another. Marshall shows us Mary’s pain convincingly, but she has to battle against a script that makes the character seem unreasonably contradictory and thereby unsympathetic. Through no fault of the actors in Tom Attenborough’s fluent in-the-round production, the other four characters remain two dimensional. Hoare’s play is undoubtedly earnest and it understands the torment of the parenting dilemmas which it portrays, but muddled construction and unconvincing presentation diminish the strength of the pleas that it is trying to make to its audience.

Performance date: 12 April 2017

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Most of us know very little about the writer Karen Blixen, her name conjuring up only images of Meryl Streep gliding above the Serengeti in a small plane piloted by Robert Redford. It is probable that Out of Africa was once screened at the art deco Coronet that has become the home of the Print Room, where Riotous Company now sets out to paint a broader picture of Blixen’s life, incorporating extracts from her stories.

Also known under the pen name of Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen (1885-1962) spent most of her life in either Denmark or Kenya. Director Kathryn Hunter appears at intervals as the writer, now aged and syphilitic, her words tinged with sarcasm. She glances knowingly sideways, alluding to the film that would be released over two decades after her death. She refers wistfully to the lost love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, and wallows in her own celebrity, boasting that she once met Marilyn Monroe, but cancelled an appointment to meet Adolf Hitler.

Blixen’s stories as told here resemble mystical fables and are marked by stark contrasts, mirroring a writer who endured both the extreme cold of Scandinavia and the scorching heat of central Africa. Love lies alongside cruelty, serenity with savagery and always death is in close proximity. A man slays a kindly giant so as to secure a promised kiss from his sweetheart, a scholar is seduced by the dance of an angel whose wings are then eaten by rodents. The stories are told through narration and imaginative movement, using the full expanse of the stage and above it.

Written by Paul Tickell, the 80-minute production is devised by Hunter and the performers: Femi Elufowoju jr, Nikola Kodjabashia, Marcello Magni and Mia Theil Have. Haunting music for piano and percussion, composed by Kodjabashia, is heard throughout, combining with lighting effects, designed by David Plater, to heighten the paranormal, suspenseful feel of the stories.

Intriguing and enchanting as it often is, Out of Blixen is too fragmented to gel together properly and form a satisfying whole. In some ways the show emulates Streep and Redford. It glides gracefully over the life and works of a complex woman, but it shows only tenuous links between the two and offers few new insights.

Performance date: 7 April 2017

Photo: Dan Fearon


From the creator of Cruella de Vil comes a tale of crushing teenage crushes and unrequited love, set among a Bohemian artists’ community in the rural England of the 1930s. Teresa Howard’s book and lyrics derive from Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle, condensing the original into a form that is so weighed down by shallow romanticism that it comes as a surprise to discover afterwards that Smith’s publisher was not in fact Mills & Boon.

Cassandra (Lowri Izzard). a budding young writer, is attempting to capture in words the essence of the castle in which she lives (i.e. squats) with her novelist father (Ben Watson), her younger sister Rose (Kate Batter) and her step-mother Topaz (Suzanne Ahmet), an artists’ model. Along comes the castle’s new American owner Simon (Theo Boyce) and the sisters vie for his affections, Cassandra ignoring the persistent advances of the gardener Stephen (Isaac Stanmore). It is possible to understand why someone could have seen potential for a chamber musical here, but, when the material is blown up to be performed in a medium-sized traditional theatre, it looks sadly lost and lonely.

We have become spoiled by musicals staged in small studio spaces where strong characters come to the fore and this is a show that cries out for such a staging. However, blaming the choice of venue cannot entirely exonerate director Brigid Larmour for this, flat-footed, lacklustre production. She is not helped by Ti Green’s baffling set design, something like wooden scaffolding that resembles neither a chilly castle on the Suffolk coast nor a chaotic refuge for artists. Larmour has to counter a setting that is unsympathetic towards the show’s locations and its themes throughout, but an even bigger problem is the weakness of characterisations. Izzard is sweet and innocent as the pivotal figure, but opportunities for larger-than-life secondary characters to make a strong mark are passed over.

The score by Steven Edis is pleasantly melodic, much of it in the pre-War style of, say, Ivor Novello. However, the accompaniment of a three-piece band of keyboards and strings, which would have been fine in a studio space, feels inadequate here.  It is probably very unfair to Smith to say it, but the conclusion to be drawn from this adaptation of her novel is that she ought to have stuck to writing about captured canines.

Performance date: 6 April 2017

Caste (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: April 4, 2017 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


In the mid-Victorian era, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing and an unamused Queen on the throne, British theatre audiences still took time to to have a good laugh. TW Robertson’s Caste is here getting a 150th Anniversary revival and showing every year of its age becomes an integral part of its charm.

Reportedly much admired by George Bernard Shaw, the play deals with issues that were later to become regarded as Shavian and it is not difficult to find links between the two writers’ works. The opening scene has a lovestruck George d’Alroy being warned by fellow army officer Captain Hawtree about the dangers of crossing class (or caste) lines, pointing out rather inaptly that a giraffe would not be a good match for a squirrel. Undeterred, George pursues lowly Esther, a dancer whose unruly father, Eccles, does very little apart from drinking and gambling. Shades of Pygmalion?

Robertson’s comedy targets pomposity and hypocrisy so that, even if specific details in his play have changed beyond recognition, the underlying humour remains intact with age. As the plot unfolds, George and Hawtree are both posted to India and George’s snooty mother, the Marquise de St Maur, arrives on the scene to vent disapproval of Esther and disgust at her polar opposite, Eccles. Georgia de Grey”s simple set design leaves the stage uncluttered and eye-catching costumes give the production the perfect period flavour.

Duncan Moore’s George and Ben Starr’s Hawtree are genial toffs and they combine with Isabella Marshall’s sweet, sincere Esther to give the production the solid setting amid which four delightfully comic cameo performances are allowed to shine. Rebecca Collingwood is effervescent as Esther’s spirited sister Polly, the perfect match for her suitor, Neil Chinneck’s earnest Sam whose decency and work ethic make him at least the equal of his social “betters”. Paul Bradley goes gleefully over the top as the seedy Eccles and Susan Penhaligon, sneering and grimacing as the Marquise, gives us a battle axe who could easily survive 15 rounds with Lady Bracknell.

Yes, the plot creaks and the dialogue jars, but the glory of Charlotte Peters’ bubbling revival is that it transcends all the play’s dated theatrical conventions and treats Robertson’s work with the respect that would be afforded to a more familiar classic or a piece written yesterday. It builds to a final scene that is hilarious by any standards, ancient or modern, suggesting that maybe even Queen Victoria herself would have cracked a smile.

Performance date: 3 April 2017