Archive for June, 2018

Kiss Me, Kate (London Coliseum)

Posted: June 21, 2018 in Theatre

Music and lyrics: Cole Porter      Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack      Director: Jo Davies


My review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 24 June.

Performance date: 20 June 2018

Writer: Polly Stenham (after August Strindberg)      Director: Carrie Cracknell


If nothing else, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 work Miss Julie has proved itself to be both durable and malleable. For example, in 2003, Patrick Marber moved the location to rural England and the time to 1945 with his After Miss Julie; more recently, Yaël Farber realised a version of the same play in a steamy modern South Africa with her Mies Julie. Now it is the turn of Polly Stenham, transplanting the drama to the North London suburb of Hampstead in the present day.

The play’s simple premise is that a lady of high birth and wealth becomes entangled with a lowly household servant, leading to (borrowing from another Strindberg title) a dance of death. Different societies behave in different ways and, everywhere, codes of morality, class structures and gender balances shift constantly. On the other hand, it is probable that human nature remains largely unchanged. The recurring fascination with the play comes from examining how Strindberg’s dark vision of the self-destructive side of our nature relates to new settings.

A full five minutes pass in Carrie Cracknell’s production before a word is spoken. Julie’s widowed father is away and she is hosting a wild birthday party, with flashing lights and thumping music. “This is 2018” is being screamed at us at unnecessary length. Gyrating revellers are silhouetted in the background and, below stairs in the basement kitchen, chef Jean and his fiancée Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) are pilfering the booze and nibbles until Julie eventually descends.

The kitchen, spanning the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, could belong to a house that would occupy a large expanse of Hampstead Heath, but the coldness of Tom Scutt’s minimalist design works against the actors’ efforts to generate fire and passion, as does dialogue that is functional more than lyrical and witty only in flippant asides. Choreographed movement and stage effects catch the eye, but, ultimately, they are just as baffling here as in Cracknell’s recent Macbeth at the Young Vic.

Having been lauded for her performance as the young Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby could be cornering the market for spoiled rich girls who fly in the face of convention. However, leaving aside suggestions of type-casting, her Julie is also touched by vulnerability and despair at the hollowness of her parasitic existence. She knows that she is a free spirit only because her father’s money allows her to be. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean is a lightweight, a shallow opportunist aiming to open his own restaurant, who looks at first to be easy prey for Julie.

“If anyone conquered anything, I had you” claims Julie in post-coital triumph, but It is surprising that Stenham finds little more room for modern feminist themes and she even allows Jean to claim moral superiority. Her main assertion is that, in the modern age, class is determined by money alone. In Strindberg’s time, birth as well as wealth would have been the determining factors and the concept of servitude would have been clear. Now, Jean is a “servant” who is merely using his position as a stepping stone towards his own riches. 

19th Century audiences may have gasped in horror when Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, but, nowadays, the likely reaction will be shrugged shoulders and the comment “so why wouldn’t they?”. The passing of time has taken its toll on the impact of Strindberg’s messages, but we are still left wondering what new points Stenham wants to make in their place.

To work properly, all versions of Miss Julie need to be delivered as short, sharp shocks. At under 80 minutes straight through, Stenham’s version is certainly short, but its focus is often blurred and, apart from a scene which is wholly unsuitable for pet lovers, the shock waves that it sends out feel buffered. It may have dropped the word “Miss” from the original’s title, but, sadly, this production is still a miss anyway.

Performance date: 7 June 2018

Photo: Richard H Smith

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Co-author and writer: Simon Stephens      Co-author and composer: Karl Hyde      Co-author and director: Scott Graham


Masculism has perhaps become unfashionable at a time when, rightly, the movement for gender equality has gained urgent momentum. This new 90-minute piece, presented by Frantic Assembly as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), brings the male of the species back into the spotlight, with specific focus on father-son relationships.

The three co-authors put themselves at centre stage. Scott Graham (played by Declan Bennett), Karl Hyde (Mark Arends) and Simon Stephens (Nyasha Hatendi) convene on the pretext of gathering interviews of sons about their fathers in order to create a work of theatre. A potential interviewee, Luke (Craig Stein) turns out to be fatherless and stays around to serve as built-in critic. Seven all-male actors play the interviewees in separate scenes and intercutting with each other and a male voice choir emerges from the audience towards the end

Graham (from Corby), Hyde (from Kidderminster) and Stephens (from Stockport) make Fatherland almost as much about land as about fathers, reflecting on the geographical social mobility of post-World War II generations in England. They all originate from places “on the periphery of somewhere pretty interesting”, but they have moved on, leaving behind immobile fathers and parts of themselves. “What is the first memory of your father?” is always their first question and they hear memories ranging from the humdrum – sons watching Match of the Day and Steven Seagal films with their fathers – to the dramatic – disturbing accounts of final partings.

Accounts of dysfunction and incompatibility abound, with little sign of pride or joy. When Daniel (David Judge) wails aloud “No. We don’t say the word love…” repeatedly, he strikes at the theme that becomes the essence of this poignant work and the inarticulacy that so often blights family life becomes tangible. Hyde’s music (co-composed with Matthew Herbert) lifts scenes from mundanity, particularly in echoing male voice choruses, and imaginative movement brings stories to vivid life. Jon Clark’s superb lighting design merits specific mention.

In his wounding parting shot, Luke cements his position as a potential theatre critic by telling the three co-authors that what they discover is “just stories” and not something truthful. He is exactly right. Fatherland is haunted by disappearing values in a disappearing land, telling stories, but doing so without breaking down stereotypes, nor digging far beneath the surface, nor unearthing any universal truths that would bind the stories together. For all that, the sheer theatricality of the entire experience makes it worth a look and a listen.

Performance date: 31 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: