Archive for July, 2018

Pity (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: July 20, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Rory Mullarkey      Director: Sam Pritchard


In 1960, Orson Welles’ production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros appeared at the Royal Court. In the 58 years of innovative theatre that have followed, apart from a 2007 revival of the same play, it is doubtful if the famous venue has seen anything quite so utterly bonkers as Rory Mullarkey’s absurdist, anarchic, apocalyptic new comedy.  Yes, Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play, Escaped Alone, works on similar themes, contrasting the calm of traditional England with the chaotic, disintegrating world outside it, but even that does not come close.

The setting is an English market town that has no coffee bar, but boasts a multitude of ice-cream sellers. The audience walks in across the green-carpeted stage, greeted by a brass band playing the likes of Colonel Bogey and Floral Dance. A professor arrives with his daughter, complains about the awful town and is promptly struck dead by fork lightning. Daughter survives, she and a stranger assure each other, for the first of many times, “I’m alright” and the pair marry. All goes well for a few minutes until the department store in which daughter works is flattened in an explosion. Disaster then follows disaster, all in a single day.

“The plan is to keep bombing until it gets better” a warlord informs us. Characters drop like flies, but the actors, all of equal merit, get re-cycled to play other roles. They are: Paul Bentall, Sandy Grierson, Helena Lymbery, Sophia Di Martino, Siobhán McSweenet, Francesca Mills, Abraham Popoola, Paul G Raymond and Dorian Simpson. A female Prime Minister arrives at the disaster scene to dispense familiar platitudes, a famous actor drops by, only to be devoured by cannibals (“It’s true what they say, famous people really do taste better”) and hungry refugees from elsewhere seek help before being sent on their way.

Much of this is played in the form of trivial nonsense, but the effort (and seeming expense) that goes into Sam Pritchard’s astonishing production guides us towards realising that it is a lot more than just that. Literally, Pritchard throws everything into it from all directions – bombs, bullets, debris, armoured tanks (of the Hamleys variety) and an earthquake all strike. A graphic sequence, performed comically to throbbing club music with a neon-lit red “Atrocities!” sign hovering above the stage, gives a haunting vision of the catastrophes that always follow catastrophes.

Goon-like comedy can inevitably flag if it is not supported by a sturdier structure than Miullarkey builds here and, although the production’s pyrotechnics paper over many weaknesses, the loss of a few of the play’s 100 minutes could perhaps have made it all a little sharper. Amid the almost constant bombardment of verbal and visual gags, there is a risk that the writer’s serious messages, exposing the fragility of our cosy lifestyles and telling us to be less blinkered when viewing our wide world, could melt from the mind like one of the play’s many ice creams. If this were to happen, it would be the real pity.

Performance date: 19 July 2018

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted: July 17, 2018 in Cinema

Writer and director: Ol Parker      Songs: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus


Our wonderful Summer has just got even sunnier. It’s time to forget about high art and think about guilty pleasures, time to take another trip back musically to an era of dancing queens and disco kings, time to take in the warm sea breezes and bask under the cloudless skies of the idyllic Greek islands, time for unashamed escapism.

The 2008 film version of the long-running stage show Mamma Mia!, which celebrates the songs of ABBA, broke UK box office records. More recently, The Greatest Showman, which transcended poor reviews, has been a huge hit, suggesting that the appetite of British cinema goers for film musicals has not diminished. With these facts in mind, the creators of this new film, which is part-sequel and part prequel, did not really need to work too hard to make it a hit, so the pleasant surprise is that they have done such a good job in making it as least as enjoyable as its predecessor. Largely, this is due to a screenplay by writer/director Ol Parker which bristles with witty lines and a clever storyline, developed by Parker with original writer Catherine Johnson and the master of romantic comedy, Richard Curtis.

Precise casting matches familiar character with their younger selves and makes the jumps backwards and forwards in time feel effortless. We join the story with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) planning to re-launch the Hotel Bella Donna, with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) now gone and her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) planning to further his career in New York. As no one seems to have suggested DNA testing during the course of the last decade, she remains the girl with three fathers – Sam (Pierce Brosnan/Jeremy Irvine), Harry (Colin Firth/Hugh Skinner) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård/Josh Dylan).

The film takes us back to when the young Donna (Lily James) receives her degree from her Vice Chancellor (Celia Imrie) and heads straight for Greece, stopping only to be bedded by three strangers en route and arriving pregnant. The word “slut” would not be suitable for a film like this, not even if spoken by Donna’s best friends Tanya (Christine Baranski/Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Julie Walters/Alexa Davies), who give us two memorable comedy double acts for the price of one. Watch out for the Abba men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus doing a Hitchcock with non-speaking cameo appearances and Omid Djalili as a ticket seller (he makes it worthwhile hanging on until after the end credits).

If you always wanted to experience Will from BBC’s W1A (Skinner) singing Waterloo, this is the place to come. Brosnan exercises his vocal chords a little less than last time, managing only to whisper a single verse of, appropriately, SOS. Some of the songs reprise those in the last film, others are lesser-known Abba album tracks, but all are sung and choreographed with verve, some in Busby Berkeley style, including a bobbing armada of pleasure boats for Dancing Queen.

The big name addition is Cher, an Oscar winner who has done a bit of singing in her life. Resplendent in a platinum blonde wig, she is Ruby, Sophie’s long-lost grandmother, who steps down from her helicopter and dispenses the uplifting advice “being a grudge holder makes you fat”. Glancing sideways, she spots an old flame, the hotel manager who happens to be named Fernando (Andy Garcia). Cue a duet. If we take the lyrics of Fernando completely seriously, this pair fought side-by-side in a mid-19th Century North American war, but the sequence is so deliciously kitsch that taking anything seriously is the last thing on our minds.

Reviving a formula that pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of being both sincere and tongue-in-cheek throughout, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again mixes an intoxicating cocktail of sun, sea, songs and super troopers. How can we resist it?

Screening date: 17 July 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Alkaline (Park Theatre)

Posted: July 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Stephanie Martin      Director: Sarah Meadows


There are some parties where it is preferable to be a fly on the wall rather than an invited guest. Such is the case in Stephanie Martin’s new one-act play, in which Sophie throws a drinks party in an attempt to rekindle her fading friendship with Sarah. However, there is an elephant in the room in that Sarah is wearing a hijab. following her recent conversion to Islam.

Martin sets up an intriguing and potentially provocative scenario for examining modern inter-faith tensions. She sets it up and then does hardly anything with it, opting instead for a routine comedy of embarrassment. EJ Martin’s Sophie is highly-strung, bossy and has a  talent for finding a faux pas to fit every situation; she is the hostess from Hell, who could be modelling herself on Beverley in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Her ineffectual fiancé Nick (Alan Mahon) snorts coke and cowers on the open staircase when he has performed what seems to be his sole duty – riling his partner – too well.

A beaming Sarah (Claire Cartwright) arrives with her new fiancé in tow, Ali (Nitin Kundra), a Geordie Moslem who is separated from his wife and three children. Ali swigs from beer bottles and indulges in locker room banter with Nick as Martin seems at pains to show that he is just an ordinary bloke notwithstanding his faith. However, there are more than a few hints of gender stereotyping in her grouping of angst-ridden women and laid back men.

Sarah explains her decision to convert in vague and dreamy terms, announcing that it makes her feel “alkaline”. Her reasons for wearing the hijab are even less clear, but we have to assume that it is not at the insistence of Ali, when his estranged wife Aleesha (Reena Lalbihari) appears, not similarly attired. Sophie finds reassurance from knowing that Christianity and Islam are both “Abramovich” religions (a malapropism that followers of Chelsea FC may appreciate). “You look nice in it (the hijab)” she whimpers sheepishly with a faint smile, following up with the useful information that M&S now stocks burkinis.

By using the lightweight character of Sophie to give voice to the prejudices and misconceptions that she seeks to highlight. the writer adds a comic touch to the play’s most serious moments. Ali’s long rebuttal of Sophie’s biggest gaffe is the most searching speech in her script, but its fire is also eventually doused by flippancy. Sadly, such focussed exchanges are rare and Martin, seemingly having run out of things to say on her core theme, allows the play to drift off at two tangents and become about relationship troubles and family break-up.

Director Sarah Meadows’ production brings out the brittle humour well, exploiting the claustrophobic feel of Georgia de Grey’s cramped orange and green set. After 75 minutes, the party fizzles out and the play with it. This little comedy is amiable enough, but it is entirely toothless and the opportunities which Martin gives herself to say something meaningful are mostly wasted.

Performance date: 13 July 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Martin McDonagh      Director: Michael Grandage


Black comedy is becoming an endangered species, threatened by modern forces of political correctness and thin-skinned sensitivity. So thank Heavens for Martin McDonagh. Earlier this year, over-sensitivity to facile accusations of racism could have cost him Oscars for his brilliant film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but the theatre seems to be a more understanding place for him and this revival of his early work is welcome indeed.

Set at the height of the Irish troubles, the play has none of the lyricism or heart of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. Its sole focus is the sheer brutality that underpins terrorist activities and its triumph is to turn such subject matter into, probably, the most hilarious production seen in London since McDonagh’s Hangmen three years ago. The Lieutenant of Inishmore feels like a prototype for the writer’s film In Bruges, in which he satirised the warped codes of morality of the criminal underworld; here, he gives the same treatment to paramilitary groups, specifically a splinter of the IRA, but the general overtones are clear.

Padraic (a swaggering Aiden Turner) is a renegade terrorist, self-appointed lieutenant in his own splinter army, who thinks the IRA too soft, but admits that they make better bombs than him. We first meet him as he is torturing a drug pusher for supplying children, a carnal sin to him when blowing the same children into oblivion with a home-made bomb would be all in a day’s work. The catalyst for the wanton carnage that is to follow is the death of Padraic’s beloved 15-year-old cat, Wee Tom, who he had left in the care of his un-beloved father Donny (Denis Conway). Donny’s incompetent attempts, along with his gormless gay sidekick Davey (Chris Walley), to cover up the circumstances of the cat’s demise take up the first act and Padraic’s bloody revenge the second.

The success of a comedy such as this depends on pace, tone and performances and Michael Grandage’s production gets them all spot-on. Charlie Murphy is particularly striking as Davey’s 16-year-old sister, Mairead, who is even more threatening than her idol and role model, Padraic. The putative lovers share the dream of a free and united Ireland even if there is no one left to live in it. In the closing scenes, the stage takes on the look of an abattoir, human corpses just outnumbering feline ones, and then an audacious final, ironic twist sends us away purring in delight.

Performance date 11 July 2018

Creator: Jennifer Marsden      Director and choreographer: Racky Plews

Perhaps it is inevitable that Game of Thrones:The Musical, will hit our stages one day, but, in the meantime, we have to make do with this fusion of classic rock anthems and a tale of heroism, bloodletting and tepid romance, set in a medieval kingdom where knights brandish swords, shields and electric guitars.

The creator of Knights of the Rose, Jennifer Marsden, is, we are told, a barrister, so we have to take it as read that there is no specific law against putting a show like this in front of an audience. Whether or not there should be becomes more debatable as the evening progresses. The House of the Rose (no specified colour) rules over the land, headed by King Aethelstone (Adam Pearce, booming like a miniature Brian Blessed) with his mild-mannered Queen Matilda (Rebecca Bainbridge) at his side. Their son, Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) is absent waging war while their daughter, Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill) loiters at home doing silly things in the company of other maidens, all wearing low-cut dresses, with long, straight hair draped over their shoulders. No cliché is left unused.

The knights return home in glory, hang around taverns waving their tankards and talking bawdily, woo their women and return to war. In short, Marsden’s plot is Much Ado About Nothing without the comedy, crossed with Henry IV pt1 without the weight of history. Sub-Shakespearean verse, much of it ludicrous, goes into the mix. The dramatic temperature rises when Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and the shady Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley) compete for Hannah’s hand and the lowly, un-knighted John (Ruben Van keer) acts as a kind of chorus, linking the story together.

There is fun to be had in guessing which familiar lyric daft lines of dialogue are leading into. When the audience guesses correctly, hilarity ensues, but most of the laughs in the show seem to come when Marsden would have least wanted them. The music is loud, amplified just enough to drown out the noise from the overworked air conditioner in this shabby old auditorium. Rock hits such as Holding Out For a Hero, Blaze of Glory, Addicted to Love, Total Eclipse of the Heart, and so on, follow each other in quick succession, but it all becomes too much and, when the company renders REM’s Everybody Hurts, everybody agrees. A dash of Mozart near the end comes as a welcome relief.

Director/choreographer Racky Plews has a decent track record with musicals and she does what she can with the material to hand, using Diego Pitarch’s split-level set imaginatively. Her staging of the fight scenes is exciting, made more so by Tim Deiling’s dramatic lighting effects. The singing is also strong, with Cowley standing out. and Mark Crossland’s seven-piece band does all that could be asked of it. Yes, the show has plusses, but their worth feels diminished when they are placed in a context as inept as this.

This cacophonous calamity is at its best when it wanders into “so bad it’s good” territory, but, sadly, it does not stay there long enough and the show drags out to become a very long evening indeed. At least its creator can find some consolation in having a day job to go back to.

Performance date: 5 July 2018

Photo: Mark Dawson

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Dusty (Theatre Royal, Bath)

Posted: July 5, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jonathan Harvey      Director: Maria F


A Girl Called Dusty still holds a  special place in my vinyl collection, even though I no longer have anything to play it on, so I can begin with a personal declaration of sentimental interest. This show was always going to bring tears to my eyes and, in the event, it brings plenty. There have been previous attempts to dramatise the life of La Springfield, pioneer for equal rights and LGBTQ icon, on stage, but the names involved here told us well in advance that this was always going to be different class.

Dusty, as seen here, is not very nice to know and she does not seem the ideal subject for a spectacular, feel good juke box musical. The surprise is that writer Jonathan Harvey and director Maria Friedman at first seem intent on making it just that, with big song and dance routines, choreographed by Tim Jackson. They even go as far as incorporating Springfield songs for other characters to sing, but they are only delaying the point as which the show has to reveal what it really is – a full-blown study of a superstar in melt-down, along lines similar to Pam Gems’ Piaf. Once the creators make their minds up that this is a tragic drama in which songs feature, not a musical at all, the show gains in confidence and, at times hits magnificent heights.

Harvey begins in late 1963 when Dusty had split from her brother’s group and was already riding high in the charts with I Only Want to Be With You. This leaves the writer with a back story to tell and he does so with some extremely clunky dialogue, but, once over this hurdle, his brand of camp humour works well to lighten the gloom of much of what follows. Esther Coles and Ella Kenion are hilarious as the star’s loyal right hand women and a sour-faced Roberta Taylor is a grim joy as her gin-swilling Mum. Rufus Hound is rather under-used as her frustrated manager.

At the centre of everything is Katherine Kingsley’s sensational Dusty. Her performance is not just about replicating the singing voice and the look, which she does superbly, it is about finding the heart of a petulant, self-centred, self destructive diva. Harvey offers excuses for her behaviour with passing references to a troubled childhood, but still, sympathy for her is hard to find. Seen as a controlling perfectionist and unreliable performer at the peak of her fame, she foregoes the opportunities offered by British pantos and opts for seedy Los Angeles night clubs, her descent into alcoholism, drug addiction and self-harming accelerating rapidly. She turns down the opportunity to record Killing Me Softly and a frustrated Elton John hands over Don’t Go Breaking My Heart to Kiki Dee (played as rather drab by Alex Bowen). Her love life is represented here by Lois (a moving performance by Joanna Francis), a backing singer who sacrifices her own career for Dusty and receives neglect in return.

Tom Pye’s simple but readily adaptable set designs and his bright period costumes work well. Credit too for Carole Hancock for hair and wigs. The stirring finale comes with You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, which is presented as the high point of Dusty’s career and it really wasn’t. Nonetheless, Kingsley brings the house down with it. The show goes on a short tour after here, with a West End run not yet announced. Hopefully, Harvey and Friedman will work on fixing the few remaining problems by the time it hits town and help Kingsley to get all the accolades that she deserves.

Performance date: 4 July 2018

Jellyfish (Bush Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Ben Weatherill      Director: Tim Hoare


How do perceived misfits find their place in our society? Ben Weatherill’s gentle comedy looks bravely into sensitive issues by challenging preconceptions and prejudices, while serving up a fair number of good laughs in the process.

Sarah Gordy gives a remarkably confident and mature performance as Kelly, a 27-year-old woman who has Down’s Syndrome. Kelly’s life turns around when she befriends Neil, who is a few years older and “normal”. She sees him as a friend and possible lover, but her mother, Agnes, sees him as a predator with sinister intent and wider society sees him as weird. In Tim Hoare’s carefully paced production, the play uses subtle humour to explore how the friendship could develop into co-habitation and parenthood, with relationship ups and down along the way.

Many of the scenes take place on a chilly Skegness beach, Amy Jane Cook’s set design including plentiful sand, a boardwalk and suggestions of amusement arcades and ice cream vendors. Agnes and Kelly have walked this beach every day for 15 years, their bond firmly sealed until the arrival of Neil. As the protective mother, Penny Laden is gritty and down-to-Earth, but she displays the weariness brought on by what feels to her like a lifetime of caring. Agnes speaks movingly of what it means to be a carer, in terms of the everyday practicalities, and she fears with good reason what could happen if she lets Kelly go.

At times when the the writing becomes too earnest and laden with worthiness, the play tends to be a little stodgy, but Weatherill tempers this by tapping into a rich vein of dark comedy, beginning with the arrival of Dominic, a young man with Asperger Syndrome, who is Agnes’ chosen suitor for Kelly. She has found him on Tinder. Nicky Priest’s deadpan style is perfect for Dominic, whose literal interpretations (“I’m not blind” he replies at the suggestion that he is on a blind date) and unintended sarcasm give the play its funniest moments. “We all deserve to be as miserable as each other” he philosophises, before moving on to revise for his forthcoming appearance on Mastermind, with the specialist subject of Kylie Minogue.

If the play has a shortcoming, it is that it does not tell us enough about Neil. Weatherill’s failure to flesh out the character leaves Ian Bonar with little option but to play him as kindly but dull and it becomes very difficult for him and Gordy to make the romance between Neil and Kelly believable. However, we have no problems with believing in the underlying warmth of the adversarial mother/daughter relationship which lies at the heart of the play.

Weatherill poses more questions than he offers answers, but, commendably, he does not go for any soft options. If nothing else, Jellyfish betrays its title by reminding us that people with learning disabilities are not spineless and they don’t sting.

Performance date: 29 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: