Archive for January, 2018

Ken (The Bunker)

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Terry Johnson      Director: Lisa Spirling


The Bunker has become a warm place of refuge during these cold Winter evenings. Warmth radiates from Terry Johnson’s affectionate remembrance of the rogue East London theatre maker and performer Ken Campbell, who died aged 66 in 2006; warmth also comes from the transformed theatre itself, freshly carpeted throughout, decorated by a multitude of glowing lampshades and by cushions scattered everywhere for the audience’s comfort. Tim Shortall’s design makes us part of a Bohemian artistic community in the 1970s.

Lisa Spirling’s production was first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016. Johnson who has written about several eccentric figures in British comedy in his successful plays, had his first encounter with Ken in 1978. Then a struggling 23-year-old writer and actor, Johnson spoke to Ken on the telephone by chance, displayed his mastery of accents and was told “Jim Broadbent has f***ed off, so you’ve got the part”. What follows is a string of longish anecdotes detailing what, to most of us, would be the nightmare of being anywhere near Ken.

As did Alan Bennett’s in his play about a larger-than-life character from his own past, The Lady in the Van, Johnson puts himself at the centre and plays himself too. He stands behind a lectern, looking and sounding every bit as dull and suburban as he is described in his text. This makes him the perfect straight man to Jeremy Stockwell’s outrageous, tyrannical clown, Ken, first seen wearing a pen-filled sleeveless jacket over a Dennis the Menace jumper.

The stories are “not entirely true” warns Johnson, adding that the least believable are likely to be the truest. The writer’s great skill for shaping jokes serves him better than his gift for delivering them, while Stockwell (who was once directed by the real Ken at the National Theatre), bounces around among the audience like a leprechaun on acid. A fair amount of ad-libbing helps the fun to keep rolling along.

The centrepiece story revolves around a 24-hour-long production in a derelict Odeon cinema for the Edinburgh Festival. Johnson’s play runs for a much more reasonable 90 minutes straight through (Ken “can’t be doing with” intervals). Ken is also seen to be a very mischievous prankster, his attempt to change the name of the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Royal Dickens Company forcing a televised denial from Trevor Nunn. His disrespect for tired traditions and conventions of British theatre and, indeed, British life, continued to the end and his practical joking extended to his own funeral.

As memories of Ken Campbell fade, the question burns as to whether he made any lasting impact on British theatre. Johnson’s play suggests the answer with a neat metaphor, pointing out that you only need to move a tiller by a small fraction for the boat to eventually end up on a different continent. Perhaps the true worth of the unique Ken is still to be evaluated.

Performance date: 29 January 2018

Photo: Robert Day

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:



Writer and co-director: Javaad Alipoor      Co-director: Kirsty Housley


“Keep your mobile ‘phones ON and keep them on LOUD” we are instructed, thereby making this different from any normal visit to the theatre before even leaving the foyer. But Javaad Alipoor’s hour-long show/presentation/lecture is anything but a normal visit to the theatre.

Alipoor’s topic is radicalisation. Heard and seen over a sea of loud pings and lit-up screens, he acknowledges that extremism attaches itself to many causes, political or religious, but, himself a Moslem, he makes clear from the outset that he is talking specifically about Islamic extremism. He is also clear that he is talking about Moslem men, explaining how he had found it impossible to gather evidence of the views of women.

The starting point is 2003, when, Alipoor tells us, Western forces attacked Sunni Moslems in Iraq, thereby further alienating Moslems world-wide who had felt oppressed and marginalised over the course of many centuries. This coincided with the explosion in global communications. From the stories of individuals and images projected onto a screen, we come to see how the virtual violence of video games merges into the violence of real warfare and terrorist acts. The internet had changed everything.

Societies in all countries have always produced outsiders, those with extreme views, or psychopaths, but now, we are shown, the means to galvanise and inspire them had arrived. We learn of extremist views that “cucks” (derived from cuckolds and referring to weak, usually liberal-minded men) have surrendered to “false” concepts such as the gender pay gap. The extent of the divergence of Western society and conservative Islam, with regard to the roles of women, now becomes chilling.

We are all asked to join a WhatsApp group so that messages and images can pass back and forth between the presenter and members of the audience. The ‘phone pings and we respond, instinctively, automatically and the message or image is logged in our brains. The insidious power of instant messaging becomes clear, but the point is made early and the constant sound of still more pings, possibly mixed in with those generated by friends and loved ones, begins to distract us from what Alipoor is trying to tell us.

We are offered no solutions to radicalisation. Alipoor does not seek to admonish his multi-faith or no faith audience and certainly not to radicalise us. His mission is to enlighten us and, hopefully, to generate greater understanding, a commodity that, it seems, has been in short supply so far in the 21st Century.

Performance date: 26 January 2018

Photo: The Other Richard

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:



There or Here (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 26, 2018 in Theatre
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Writer: Jennifer Maisel      Director: Vik Sivalingham


Maybe Donald Trump’s America frowns upon outsourcing of work to developing countries, but, back in 2006, the practice was widespread. Expanding on this theme, Los Angeles based writer Jennifer Maisel’s play comes up with the idea that it could have been easier and cheaper for would-be parents to find surrogate mothers in India rather than in the USA.

Robyn (Lucy Fenton) works as an illustrator of children’s books; she is an insomniac chatterbox who has cancer. Her partner Ajay (Chris Nayak) is a business consultant who was born in India, but is now an all-American fast food junkie. They are childless and want to take steps to establish a future family before Robyn’s treatment begins. Together they embark on an economy class flight to India, Robyn clutching a flask containing her frozen eggs for the entire journey.

On arrival, the couple meet a doctor (Ursula Mohan) who acts as conduit between them and an Indian couple, cocky taxi driver Rajit (Manish Gandhi) and his wife (Rakhee Thakrar) whose womb he is renting out to finance a new cab. Back home, Robyn’s worrying mother (Mohan) seeks initiation into the world of global communications and after being coaxed into buying an expensive laptop, she takes the young salesman (Gandhi) as her toy boy.

Diverging from the main storyline, Maisel picks up on the fact that modern technology can bring people together and, at the same time, make them more remote. Both Robyn and Ajay, seemingly unable to get satisfaction for their emotional needs in each other, find the listening ears of strangers (all Thakrar) at the other end of telephone lines. Robyn talks incessantly to a technical support agent in India, who pretends to be in Oklahoma, having picked up her accent from the musical. Ajay unburdens himself on a hidden lady taking orders at a drive-thru restaurant and then on a novice sex worker via a premium rate chat line.

The first half of the play jumps backwards and forwards between years in the mid-noughties, thereby unsettling the narrative flow, and then, when Maisel eventually gets it onto a continuous track, she takes the plotting further than she needs to, as if struggling to find a satisfactory way to tie up the many loose ends. On occasions, the writer emulates Robyn by rambling on for too long, but she shows a keen sense of the ironies of modern living, which keeps this production afloat, buoyed by nimble direction from Vik Sivalingham and engaging performances.

So, what is this meant to be all about? Surrogacy? Parenthood? Multiculturalism? Ethnic identity? Globalisation? Technological advances? In fact, it is about all of these things, but not enough about any single one of them. Packing in too many potentially intriguing ideas, it is not surprising that the play buckles under the weight and gets confused. Its chief problem is summed up neatly in the title. It never seems to know where it is going.

Performance date 25 January 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

John (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Annie Baker      Director: James Macdonald


Annie Baker is a writer who does not like to hurry. Her Pulitzer Prize winning play The Flick, staged at the National’s Dorfman Theatre in the Spring of 2016, found time for long silences and spells when the stage was left empty, but, in over three inaction-packed hours, she created characters and images that, almost two years later, remain hard to forget.

John, Baker’s follow-up, first seen off-Broadway in 2015, has a similar running time (two intervals are included, but the second is unexpectedly interrupted) and its arrival at the Dorfman has been eagerly anticipated. The writer’s ponderous style, bravely defying many theatrical conventions, is here again and her characters are once more distinguished by their ordinariness and their preoccupations with the humdrum. We are forewarned at the outset of what pace to expect, when an elderly lady slowly opens, manually, the traditional red velvet theatre curtain, wanders silently around the set and disappears upstairs. Unhurriedly, she performs her ritual with the curtain at the beginning and end of all three acts.

The elderly lady is Mertis (Marylouise Burke), owner, with her unseen husband of 13 years, of a boarding house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is the week after Thanksgiving and her only guests are just arriving. They are a young couple, less than truthful Jenny (Anneika Rose) and neurotic Elias (Tom Mothersdale). They have their secrets and their relationship is clearly strained.

From here, the play has virtually no plot, but Baker uses her characters and the setting to probe into the power of hidden forces to infiltrate our lives, making only slight suggestions of the paranormal. The boarding house is close to the scene of a great battle in the American Civil War and personal ghosts rub shoulders with those of the fallen. The characters reveal their inner selves slowly, through conversations so banal that even a recitation of the collective nouns for birds becomes interesting, but the writer punctuates the dialogue with much sly humour and throws in many amusing surprises

Chloe Lamford’s lovingly detailed set integrates with every theme in the play. A central staircase climbs high to the unheated, possibly haunted guest rooms; a dining area pretends to be Parisian; a grandfather clock marks the passing of the hours; solemn music emerges from an illuminated speaker; an upright piano and a Christmas tree take on lives of their own; dozens of figurines and children’s plastic dolls watch over, inanimate objects overseeing near-unanimated characters.

“Everyone knows someone named John” declares Mertis’ blind friend Genevieve (June Watson), perhaps alluding to John Doe, symbol of the American everyman. Specifically, John is Genevieve’s dead husband who haunts her and was one of the seven reasons that she offers for her insanity. Baker extends this and John comes to represent the gremlins that occupy all our brains, spying on us and directing our actions. These gremlins are intruders, perhaps manifested also in the sinister dolls, Mertis’ vacant gaze, or Genevieve’s unseeing stare and even we, the prying audience, are made to feel that we are in collusion.

Director James Macdonald tunes into Baker’s unique style comfortably and draws perfectly judged performances from all four actors. As well over three hours literally crawl by, a hypnotic spell is cast and the play etches itself into our minds. Eccentric and at times bizarre, John could be a theatre experience like no other, except, of course, for The Flick.

Performance date: 24 January 2017

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Writer: Oscar Wilde      Director: Kathy Burke


Dominic Dromgoole’s year-long Oscar Wilde season, bringing to the West End plays most of which are never long absent from the West End anyway, continues with this featherlight frippery on themes of Victorian hypocrisy and marital/maternal mishaps. Kathy Burke is not a name that we associate with orthodoxy and her involvement as director could have led to expectations of a radical shake up, but, in the event, she settles for minor trimmings to the text and then lavishes undiluted affection all over the piece to deliver a revival that is a lot more about the stars (of the television variety) than the gutter.

As Mrs Erlynne, secret mother of Lady Windermere, Samantha Spiro is, as always, a delight, but the does not find quite enough of the ruthless streak that is needed for the character to make sense. Kevin Bishop gets star billing as Lord Darlington, Lady W’s lovelorn suitor, but he can do little more than make a very dull man even duller. It takes Jennifer Saunders to bring the evening to life, staking her claim as a Lady Bracknell in waiting, in the role of the haughty, gossiping Duchess of Berwick. In the second half, Saunders contributes a risqué music hall routine to fill in during a set change; it gains rapturous applause, but it has little to do with the play, except for highlighting a double entendre in the title that Wilde may or may not have intended. The Windermeres are, rightly, played by young actors (Grace Molony and Joshua James), but Joseph Marcell, a splendid Lord Lorton, is the only real example of casting against type, which leaves us lamenting that Burke does not take more similar risks.

Paul Wills’ designs are a treat, the costumes and the Windermeres’ home appearing in perfectly coordinated pastel shades, but they are supporting a production that is almost entirely conventional, when something a little more groundbreaking could have been hoped for.

Performance date: 16 January 2018

Writer: Mikhail Durnenkov      Translator: Noah Birksted-Breen      Director: Gordon Anderson


Russian writer Mikhail Durnenkov’s play is set on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It begins with three characters languishing “in the zone”, helped by drink or immersion in a video game, and then proceeds to demonstrate the hazards away from their domestic cosiness – warfare, human frictions, catastrophes real or imagined, near or far, the unkindness of strangers, and so on.

The War Has Not Yet Started is playing in repertory with The Here and This and Now, both productions having originated at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. The play is made up of a dozen scenes, each of around five minutes duration, linked only loosely by the central theme.

Three actors, Hannah Britland, Sarah Hadland and Mark Quartley, play all the roles, often without regard to age or gender. Thus, a possessive husband (Britland) threatens another man (Hadland) for lusting after his wife (Quartley). A father (Britland), mother (Quartley) and son (Hadland) make up a dysfunctional family. This contributes to the surreal feel of Gordon Anderson’s production which is counterbalanced by Bob Bailey’s very real set design – drab wallpaper behind a sofa, chairs and wardrobe that look over half a century old.

When a television newsreader (Hadland) returns home to find his/her partner (Quartley) in a state of terror because of an item of fake news that he/she had broadcast, the play brings in a neat topical touch; and, when a power cut hits an overseas airport, panic erupts in a blacked-out departure lounge and brings to the fore the sense of foreboding that we can all feel when surrounded by strangers and far from home.

However, scenes are inconsistent both in their style and their effectiveness. More twists in the tail or “punchlines” are needed and perhaps a robot (Quartley) who has received an absurdity implant could have helped Durnenkov – added dashes of humour in the manner of Eugene Ionesco might, at least, have made dry scenes funnier.

Some scenes are forgettable instantly, others beg to be expanded further. On one hand, the monologue of a character (Hadland) who has kicked the smoking habit, shouting triumphantly, with the backing of the 1812 Overture, seems too slight to merit stage time. On the other hand, when an abused wife (Britland) creates a fictional lover to combat her violent husband (Quartley), we see the germ of an idea for a strong dramatic concept, but, sadly, it is over too quickly.

Overall, the play is something of a curate’s egg, good only in parts and it is far too scrappy. The world is indeed a threatening place, but this production does not get us sufficiently “in the zone” to forget about our own worries.

Performance date: 19 January 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Also in January…..

Posted: January 19, 2018 in Theatre

A few to be going on with (there could be more).


Witness for the Prosecution (London County Hall)

Writer: Agatha Christie      Director: Lucy Bailey


It was going to take something special to get me to go to a revival of Agatha Christie’s ropey old courtroom melodrama, Witness for the Prosecution, particularly as I had remembered the denouement from seeing Billy Wilder’s matchless 1957 film version. So here it is – something VERY special, performed in the grand Council Chamber of London County Hall, former home of the GLC, murdered in 1986 (Maggie Thatcher dunnit). The Chamber is a near-perfect stand-in for the Old Bailey and the appropriately named Lucy Bailey creates her sight specific staging imaginatively to deliver a perfectly thought out production. It is a pleasure to occupy one of the plush leather seats along benches encased in polished wood, but, sadly,  “Ken woz ‘ere” cannot be found carved in any of them. The setting works so well that the creaks in the play (there are many) pass by almost unnoticed and a more than decent cast (including David Yelland, Patrick Godfrey and Philip Franks, all bewigged) does the rest. A good old fashioned treat!

Performance date: 18 January 2018


The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (Criterion Theatre)

Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Shields      Directors: Mark Bell with Nancy Zamit


Having already anchored The Play That Goes Wrong in the Duchess, Mischief Theatre completes the second leg of its possible bid for West End domination by planting this bonkers comedy deep in the bowels of Piccadilly Circus. Mischief indeed! Here we have a show that mixes the sort of pun-filled gags that we thought had been laid to rest alongside Tommy Cooper with music hall routines, dashes of Feydeau and physical comedy reminiscent of Buster Keaton. Yes it’s a comedy and yes it’s about a bank robbery – one in Minneapolis circa 1960. “How can we stand this over-the-top zaniness for more than two hours” we ask at the start, but resistance quickly becomes utterly futile when the timing and delivery of all the jokes are perfection and the execution of the slapstick is little short of miraculous. There are many more cerebral shows around, but few can be more hilarious. They DO still make comedies like they used to!

Performance date: 14 January 2018


42nd Street (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)

Book: Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble      Music: Harry Warren      Lyrics: Al Dubin      Director: Mark Bramble


After Follies at the National, this spectacular homage to the golden days of Broadway could be labelled, perhaps unfairly, Follies-lite. Unlike Sondheim’s masterpiece, this is a show in which little enjoyment would be lost by checking in our brains along with our Winter coats. The story is about who knows what?. It’s the songs, almost all standards, and the eye-popping, glittering dance routines that matter and they are delivered by a company of, let’s say, 60, emphasising yet again what an incredible pool of performing talent British musical theatre has to draw from. In one of the few theatres in the World big enough to stage something on this scale, the show is probably aimed primarily at tourists and Essex coach parties (confirmed by the constant patrolling of ushers to demand switching off of mobile phones). Those of us spoiled by the intimacy of off-West End theatres may have trouble adjusting to it, but it’s undemanding fun anyway.

Performance date: 9 January 2018