Archive for March, 2018

Writer: Leo Butler      Director: Law Ballard


“It’s bigger than it looks from the outside” observes Joanne; “We call it Tardis” responds Dave. They are talking about the studio flat on the fringes of London’s East End of which Dave is sub-tenant, but they could just as well be talking about the pub theatre that is staging this revival of Leo Butler’s 2008 play, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London. If director Law Ballard’s new production is not exactly site-specific, it feels as near such as makes little difference.

Joanne and Dave have lived apart for ten years, but remain married. He had walked out of their heavily-mortgaged Sheffield home to reclaim his freedom and live a life of easy money, free-flowing sex and casual drug-taking. He is now a 44-year-old recruitment consultant who reads The Guardian and looks forward to Question Time on television. After struggling to pay off debts, 39-year-old Joanne has established a small business as a florist. The reasons for her visit to see her husband are left unclear until well into the play, but the differences that separate the pair are abundantly obvious from the outset.

Butler’s harsh, unsentimental examination of the north-south divide and gender inequality feels as biting and relevant now as it would have been when first performed. The Sheffield-born writer spreads his cynicism even-handedly, pouring scorn on both the shallow hypocrisy of London’s middle classes and the small-mindedness of their northern counterparts. Played over 75 minutes in real time, Ballard’s carefully paced production is slow to get going, but it builds to a powerful crescendo with a raw and bruising confrontation between the two protagonists.

The acting could hardly be bettered. Bonnie Adair’s sharp-tongued, direct Joanne, displays her emotional scars openly and refuses to be impressed by the landmarks, glamour and excitement of our capital city. Outwardly, she is strong and proud, allowing only the audience to see her tears. Adam Bone’s Dave is nervous and evasive in his wife’s presence, seemingly hiding feelings of deep-rooted guilt. He brushes off Joanne’s jibes until pushed into a corner and then unleashes a ferocious tirade against the northern lifestyle that had stifled all his ambitions in life. For Joanne, geography is not the only constraint. As a woman, she sees that the options that Dave took to break free were not available to her, even less so now that she is an ageing woman.

Michael Leopold’s precisely detailed set design crams everything into the small cube that Dave inhabits, including a kitchen sink. Noise from neighbours in the converted building is forever intruding and the set will be a familiar place for many locals who enter the White Bear Theatre during this production’s run. Indeed, the play’s themes should also resonate strongly. The divisions, north-south and male female, persist at the end of Butler’s play and, if the writer offers a distant hope of reconciliation with his final line, it is only a very faint one.

Performance date: 16 March 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Interview: Tristan Bernays

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Theatre

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

After the success of his play Boudica at the Globe Theatre last year, 2018 is getting off to a good start for Tristan Bernays. His musical Teddy, which premiered at Southwark Playhouse in 2016 is soon to return to London for a 10 week run at the Vaults and his new play Old Fools is about to open at Southwark Playhouse. The writer took time off from his busy schedule to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates.

At first glance, a play that deals with Alzheimer’s Disease would seem to have limited appeal, but Bernays insists “the play is not ABOUT Alzheimer’s, it is about relationships and how difficult it is to keep a relationship going over several years, especially when it is eventually affected by illness”. He adds “it spans 40 or so years, playing around with memory and time jumping…it is an incredibly human experience and it is only an hour, leaving time for a drink in the bar afterwards”.

The play’s central characters are named Tom and Viv, so was this an intended reference to TS Eliot? Bernays laughs and protests “no, absolutely not, it was a complete coincidence. I was halfway through the play when it was pointed out to me, but, when you’ve named characters, it’s difficult to go back. They were in my head with those monosyllabic names and I stuck with them”.

The play is a two-hander, but, bearing in mind its title and the theme of dementia, it comes as a surprise to discover that two relatively young actors, Mark Arends and Frances Grey, have been cast in the premier production. Bernays explains that casting decisions were not his: “my script gives the director (in this case Sharon Burrell) a blank sheet, with no stage directions or anything like that. The play spans many years and the actors play eight characters in all, so it is perfectly possible that a future production could be acted by 70-somethings”.

The writer is drawing from personal experience, his grandfather having suffered from Alzheimer’s. “I understand what it means when someone you know and love is, gradually, not there any more” he says. “The play includes some of my own family’s mythology, like stared jokes. I wrote it some time ago and then set it aside, as happens in this business, and, one day, Sharon contacted me and said ‘let’s do it’, so here we are”.

With his playwriting career blossoming, where does Bernays see himself going from here? “I trained as an actor, but tried everything in theatre and quickly realised that I was more interested in other areas (including) lighting….and, of course writing” he explains. “I still perform my one-man shows, such as Testament, which was at the Vault Festival recently, but I have another project in hand and I am focussing mainly on writing”. We all wait with interest to see what this promising young talent comes up with next.

Adaptor: Tim Luscombe      Director: Daniel Buckroyd


A great deal of mileage has been found in Henry James’ 1898 novella Turn of the Screw. It has spawned a Benjamin Britten opera, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film (The Innocents), not to mention television versions, and now Tim Luscombe has adapted it into a stage play for this handsomely-mounted touring production.

The plot is simple. A young governess (Carli Norris) is hired by the distant guardian (Michael Hanratty) of two young children, Flora and Miles, to take care of them in his country house, giving explicit instructions that he is never to be troubled regarding any matters affecting them. With only the doughty housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Maggie McCarthy) to help her, the governess soon discovers that the children are deeply troubled. Miles has been expelled from school for unexplained reasons and both appear to be obsessed with, or perhaps possessed by the ghosts of a former valet and the previous governess, who had each died in mysterious circumstances.

By framing his play inside the recollections of the governess some 30 years later, Luscombe distinguishes his version from some others, but reverts to a structure that is similar to James’ original work. Here the governess is challenged by the adult Flora (Annabel Smith) to explain what had happened and the audience is invited to question the veracity of her account. Thus, a story that is always enigmatic becomes more so. Are the malign forces at work paranormal or of human making? Is it the children who are possessed by ghosts or is it actually the governess?

Sara Perks’ set design and Matt Leventhall’s lighting give the production its vital creepiness. A single child’s bed and a large rocking horse occupy centre stage and, behind them, projected images occasionally emerge through the darkness. What we need to see is illuminated brightly, but the rest of the stage is a pitch black expanse in which we fear evil could be lurking. For the most part, director Daniel Buckroyd seems to take the point that suggestion is far more powerful than overstatement in the telling of ghost stories, but, occasionally, he betrays this principle with sudden flashes and loud bangs that are designed more to make us jump than to really scare us, thereby taking his production dangerously close to Victorian melodrama.

The roles of Flora and Miles are played by adult actors (Smith and Hanratty), assuming children’s speech, movement and mannerisms. This diminishes the impact of essential ingredients in James’ original – childhood innocence and the corruption thereof. The problem manifests itself most strikingly in a disappointingly limp staging of the climactic scene which fails to generate the sense of horror that it undoubtedly should. That aside, Luscombe’s play is a worthy addition to the list of theatrical ghost stories and it should have lovers of the hugely successful Woman in Black queuing for tickets.

Performance date: 15 March 2018

Photo: Robert Workman

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Then Again (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: March 14, 2018 in Theatre

Creators: Tremolo Theatre      Directors: Helena Middleton and Jack Drewry


There was a time when a stereotypical inventor and time traveller would have been a grey-haired, dishevelled old crank, but no more. Here we find Millie, a geeky, bespectacled university science student who is, if not exactly Doctor Who, probably very much like her.

Tremolo Theatre’s 55-minute comedy show is made by and for the social media generation, which, although growing in numbers, does not include all of us and there is a sense that its humour might be better received on a campus than in a fringe theatre. Millie (Hanora Kamen) is a thoroughly modern young lady whose inventions include a noodle dryer, a talking toothbrush, a hover broom and a singing hair dryer. Intent on self-promotion, she and her friend Anna (Lily London), a struggling musician, launch an assault on YouTube.

When Millie invents a machine that allows her to travel backwards and forwards in time, which also has the side effect of cloning her several times over, things start to turn sour. “Milly Makes” becomes s fleeting internet hit, topping one million views, but her censorious tutor (Alice Ritchie) disapproves and she gets sent down.

If the comedy could have matched Millie’s inventiveness or, if the show could have found the wit to equal the charm and enthusiasm of its performers, this would have been a surefire winner. However, things have not quite fallen into place yet. Of course, it is all completely bonkers (and there is nothing wrong with that) but the script needs a lot more bite to turn it into an effective satire of modern lifestyles.

The familiar message that real friends are better than virtual ones comes through fleetingly, but, otherwise there seems to be no serious purpose underlying the humour. Ultimately, this cheerful, inoffensive show is not really funny enough to make a big impact, but, then again, looked at as a work in progress, it could have a future.

Performance date: 12 March 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Summer and Smoke (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: March 13, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Tennessee Williams      Director: Rebecca Frecknall


Tennessee Williams is known as one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century primarily because of half a dozen or so major works that are performed regularly in London and elsewhere, but he also wrote a lot of other stuff that tends to get neglected, often for good reasons. The exhumation of this 1948 Broadway flop always seemed likely to be interesting, but few could have anticipated anything quite like what we see here. Rebecca Frecknall’s smouldering, sensual production unveils in its full glory a poetic masterpiece fit to stand alongside the writer’s greatest plays and, in Alma Winemiller, we find a delicate, bruised and proud female character who is as complex and intriguing as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Names Desire.

We first see Alma as a young girl with a crush on John, the boy in the house next door. They live in the small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, she the daughter of a minister, he the son of a doctor. As the years pass, their fascination with each other turns into obsession and then into a form of love that is fully reciprocated but never consummated. “I am as much afraid of your soul as you are afraid of my body” John tells Alma. He has become a gambler, heavy drinker and womaniser and, as he inherits his father’s medical practice, he longs to contain his wild streak and assume Alma’s purity and dignity, while she longs to throw off the shackles of a strict church upbringing and release the doppelgänger, her opposite self, that is smoking inside her.

I have vague memories of the so-so 1961 film version of this play, with Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey in the lead roles, and this recollection highlights the first of many inspired moves by director Rebecca Frecknall – the casting of two much younger-looking actors. This brings to the fore a sense of Alma and John not being able to escape the people who they were when young, thereby reinforcing all Williams’ themes. Patsy Ferran is truly phenomenal as Alma, holding the stage for almost the entire 150 minutes, mesmerising us and breaking our hearts. Matthew Needham matches her as John, looking like an overgrown schoolboy and making us understand and care for what could have been such an unsympathetic character. If anyone is looking for a dehfinition of on-stage chemistry, it is here.

There are quirks in Frecknall’s production. The significance of the entire cast being barefoot or of nine upright pianos lined up in a crescent at the back of the stage remain a mystery, but such details matter little when they contribute to evoking the combustible, stifling atmosphere of America’s Deep South so perfectly. Tom Scutt’s set design, exposing the theatre’s brick rear wall, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s music all make big contributions. Finding fault, actors doubling up in important roles is overdone. Alma’s and John’s fathers are both Forbes Masson, Alma’s mother and a townswoman are both Nancy Crane and all John’s girlfriends are Anjana Vasan. We want to concentrate on this wonderful play without having to figure out which characters are on stage at the beginning of every scene. That said, great theatre productions can always transcend their flaws and this is such a production.

Performance date 6 March 2018

Writer: Ian Grant      Director: Nadia Papachronopoulou

As with the old music hall song, many a heart is aching in After the Ball. Ian Grant’s new play is a London working class family saga spanning more than 60 years in the 20th Century, but, sadly, it buckles under the weight of its own over-ambition.

With World War I looming, young socialist William Randall (Stuart Fox) marries naive, simpering Blanche (Julia Watson) and tells her that “the poison is in the wind”. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he decides that the only antidote to the poison that he can offer is to join up, which he does, along with his friend Albert (Jack Bennett). Much is spoken about the horrors of the trenches, but William survives with only a leg wound and, while he is on leave in London for Blanche to nurse him, a baby is conceived.

After the War, William stays on in Belgium to help out with the reconstruction process and begins a torrid affair with sweet local mademoiselle, Marguerite (Elizabeth Healey), before returning home to his now hectoring wife and their daughter, Joyce (played from her teenage years by Emily Tucker). Through the London Blitz we go and then the Attlee and Wilson governments and then membership of what has since become the European Union. Joyce, a flighty girl, marries badly and later emulates her father by committing to left wing causes.

The story is told in non-linear form, leading to frequent confusion and, when characters are all played by single actors over a wide span of ages, making them consistently believable becomes virtually impossible. In Nadia Papachronopoulou’s plodding production, nothing is as moving as we feel it should be and, instead of tears, there are frequent giggles, prompted by stilted dialogue.

Meaty themes, including socialism, pacifism and women’s suffrage float over the play like clouds without ever getting properly grounded and integrated into the unfolding drama. Near the end, it seems that Grant wants to use the Randall family’s story as a metaphor for Britain’s relationship with continental Europe (or, specifically, Brussels) through to the modern era, but whatever messages he intends to convey emerge feeling as hopelessly muddled as so much else in his play. In trying too hard to say too much, the writer ends up saying nothing at all.

Performance date: 8 March 2018

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Stephen Bill      Director: Lindsay Posner


A 2012 survey revealed that there is a much higher probability that people over 60 will die on their own birthdays than on any other day of the year. In Stephen Bill’s play, things are not looking good for Ida, whose family are gathering round to celebrate her 86th, bearing greetings cards, gifts and wishes for a still longer life.

Ida (Sandra Voe) sits in her wheelchair, swathed in blankets, her vacant expression betraying the weariness of having had indignity after indignity piled upon her through illness and misfortune. Family members talk to her as they might talk to a baby in a crib and talk of her as if she was not in the room. “I’ve had enough, I have” Ida cries out and we believe her.

Daughter Katherine has baked her a cake, daughter Margaret has made her a trifle. Katherine’s husband, Geoffrey, sits dutifully watching on; Margaret’s husband, Douglas, goes off to mow the lawn; Ida’s grandson and lodger, Michael, fusses over her, while next door neighbour, Mrs Jackson, is ready to spring in and give a helping hand on hearing the faintest knock on the wall. The arrival of the family’s black sheep, youngest daughter, Susan, kicked out by Ida 25 years earlier, sets the first cat among the pigeons.

The elephant in the room is, of course, death or. more specifically, euthanasia. Bill’s character-driven play is more light drama than dark comedy and Lindsay Posner’s production skips nimbly between its pathos and humour. The set, designed by Peter McIntosh, realises perfectly the old-fashioned cosiness of a living room that has been occupied by the same person for, perhaps, too long.

Saskia Reeves’ matronly Katherine paints a perfect picture of suppressed anguish, contrasting with the self-obsessed hypocrisy of Wendy Nottingham’s Margaret. Tim Dutton’s Douglas calmly cuts through family nonsense with common sense reasoning, while still finding time to flirt with Caroline Catz’s Susan, who readily flouts convention. Jonathan Coy’s Geoffrey makes everything worse as he tries to pour oil over troubled waters; he is as instinctively a pragmatist as is his son, Michael (Leo Bill) instinctively angry, without knowing exactly why. Completing the list of spot-on performances, Marjorie Yates’ redoubtable Mrs Jackson is a touching tribute to a sadly dying breed of devoted neighbours.

As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, death (along with taxes) is a certainty (and Bill’s well observed play explores how and why that certainty remains a taboo subject in family life. Some of the moral dilemmas raised in the play are complex and potentially dry, but the writer presents them with a human touch that makes them engaging, chiefly because he invites us to recognise its characters as exaggerated versions of members of our own families.

Performance date: 5 March 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: