Archive for August, 2018

Composer and lyricist: Howard Goodall      Writer: Nick Stimson      Director: Bronagh Lagan


Some shows have no luck at all. In the same week that the arts pages of the national press have, along with The Reviews Hub, been heaping extravagant praise on the National Theatre for its groundbreaking pro/am musical version of Shakespeare’s Pericles, along comes a youth company with another new musical based on one of the Bard’s plays. It is often said that Winter follows too soon after Summer.

The showcasing of emerging acting and singing talent is always a good thing and, on the whole, Youth Musical Theatre UK delivers in that respect. Their problem is the material which they have to work with. If we are being asked  to judge Howard Goodall and Nick Stimson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as a work in progress, then, on the evidence of this production, it’s chances of progressing further look slim.

Stimson’s book transfers the action to the former Soviet Union in the Cold War era, a place that is at least more wintery than Shakespeare’s Sicilian setting. Beyond that, his simplified, prosaic and sweetened version does a no better job than did the Bard in making sense of the plot, a violent tragedy which turns into a romantic comedy. Here, in the first act, Governor Leon (Will Hopkins) erupts in a jealous rage at the perceived infidelity of his wife Comrade Ekatarina (Izzy Mackie) and comes close to destroying all around him.

To begin the second act, the action switches to a ‘60s hippy commune and designer Libby Todd’s austere sets, adorned only by dark red banners, are replaced by a a bright orange drape, with the company appearing in multi-coloured costumes. We are now on the way to reconciliation and redemption, culminating in a scene more ludicrous than in the original, including, in a departure from Shakespeare, Leon’s son rising from 16 years on his sick bed, looking exactly the same as before.

The performances are inconsistent, the best actors not being the best singers and vice versa. Hopkins is not the first actor to have fallen at the hurdle of making the erratic actions of Leon (or Leontes) credible, but he is a decent singer. Mackie comes closer to ticking both boxes and, as the story unfolds, Ines Mazdon-Elas (as Perdita) and Alistair Oakley (Luka) make an appealing pair of young lovers, possibly helped by being close to their characters’ ages.

Goodall’s score is melodic, filled with either joy or melancholy, but its failing is that there is too little variety for a story which has the sharpest of contrasts. In the first half, the music carries no sense of the fury and injustice that the drama demands. Goodall’s compositions work best for chorus singing, at which the YMT singers excel, as in the splendid second act opening, but, even then, the song is one that could have come from almost any musical, with little direct relevance to this story.

Perhaps most disappointing is the feeling that so much of Bronagh Lagan’s production lacks life, not helped by Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s dull choreography, some of the dancing resembling a village hall aerobics class. It pains to dishearten young performers, but YMT deserves better than this.

Performance date: 30 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The Goons Take to the Road

Posted: August 30, 2018 in Theatre

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

In the days before television gained its grip on popular culture, British families would gather around their wireless sets and listen to programmes such as The Goon Show. It is said that Prince Charles was an avid fan. Now, well over half a century later, a new version of that show has just been launched and is about to embark on a 32-venue United Kingdom tour. The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates went along to the launch at the Museum of Comedy in London to find out more.

The 263 episodes of The Goon Show ran between 1951 and 1961, spanning an era of bleak post-War austerity during which laughter was a much valued commodity. John Osborne was writing serious plays about Britain’s crumbling class system and its dying empire, but against the same backdrop, the Goons were turning out vintage comedy that would lighten the gloom and influence succeeding generations. Their distinctive brand of anarchic, surreal humour struck a chord with listeners in the era in which it originated, but strong traces of it can be detected in Monty Python and other landmark comedies since.

The touring show is made up of three classic episodes, using original scripts written by Spike Milligan, also one of the three main original performers. Norma Farnes, Milligan’s assistant for 36 years and this production’s Producer, spoke movingly of him at the launch and related anecdotes about the show’s origins. She had compiled a shortlist of what she believed to be Milligan’s favourite Goon Show episodes and director Julian Howard McDowell chose his personal favourites, coming up with remarkably similar results. This made the choice of episodes for the show an easy one.

Like Milligan, other Goon Show stars were to become national treasures. The jocular Welshman Harry Secombe will be played by Clive Greenwood and Peter Sellers, the great film comedy actor who was perfecting his craft before being lured away to Hollywood, will be played by the director himself. Farnes claims that she was moved to tears when she first heard Colin Elmer’s voice as Milligan. Tom Capper will play the lesser known Wallace Greenslade and musical interludes on the tour will be provided by the duo Java Jive.

Although the show will not deviate from the original scripts, McDowell is keen to stress that he aims to make it a unique theatrical experience, transporting the audience back to the Camden Theatre, from which the original shows were aired. He will be adding a strong visual element, based upon stories from the day and will be finding much fun from the bizarre sound effects, such as the famous sock full of custard. The tour promises to provide a trip down memory lane for the older generation and a hilarious eye-opener for the rest.

Pericles (National Theatre, Olivier)

Posted: August 27, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      New version: Chris Bush      Music: Jim Fortune      Director: Emily Lim


Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not William Shakespeare’s best play, nor his best-known play and, according to many scholars, it is not wholly his play at all, but here, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, a case can be made for it being one of his most entertaining plays.

The production is the inaugural work of Public Acts, “a nationwide initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community”. To bring it into being, the National Theatre has reached out into the community to find present and future theatre enthusiasts from all sections and nurtured them to perform on the hallowed boards of the Olivier stage alongside professional actors. Cast numbers run well into three figures. Old and young, fit and disabled and a wide range of ethnicities are represented, resulting in a show that is thrillingly diverse, wonderfully inclusive and entirely exhilarating.

Unfortunately, a malfunctioning flying maypole caused a 20-minute interruption to the opening performance, bringing an on-stage apology from Rufus Norris. If the loss of momentum disheartened the performers, they failed to show it, picking themselves up and carrying on like the true pros that some of them are.

“A nation’s worth is how they treat strangers…” Chris Bush’s adaptation tells us as her script misses no opportunities to pick up on and highlight themes that are relevant to modern Britain. The young Prince Pericles (Ashley Zhangazha) feels that he has outgrown his home island of Tyre and sets sail, arriving first in Tarsus, where he divests himself of his wealth to the impoverished people. He moves on, surviving a shipwreck, to Pentapolis where he meets and marries Princess Thaisa (Naana Agyei-Ampadu). Their daughter, Marina (later played by Audrey Brisson) is born at sea and the story follows Pericles’ journey back to his home in Tyre and to fulfilment.

Bush’s version condenses and streamlines the original play considerably, adopting the style of a book for a big musical, which is exactly what the show becomes. The simplicity of the storytelling, the lyrics and Jim Fortune’s lovely melodies frequently brings reminders of the hit Rice/Lloyd-Webber show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat. Audiences can be assured that there is no more need to be afraid of Shakespeare than of the Old Testament. Of necessity, this huge production has only a limited run, but surely the show will have a life beyond it.

The stage is often full to overflowing and awash with colour. Some of Fly Davis’ costume designs would not be out of place in Mamma Mia!, while director Emily Lim and choreographer Robby Graham must have had nightmares over potential traffic jams. The very nature of this production could have led to expectations of something makeshift and rough around the edges, but what we actually get, maypole excepted, is a show that is as slick and spectacular as any in the West End, rich in quality and with flat-out, storming production numbers staged to near-perfection. Extraordinary theatre indeed!

Performance date: 26 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Cora Bissett      Director:Orla O’Loughlin


Sugar and spice and all things nice? In this case, not exactly; once a rock ’n’ roll singer, Cora Bissett looks to be made more of grit and graft and sheer resilience as she crashes into the rocks, rolls with the punches and always bounces back to get on with her life.

Bissett, now an actor and theatre maker of repute, was born in Glenrothes, Fife and her account of her teenage years is triggered when she is clearing her parents’ loft in 2015 and rummaging through memorabilia. She asks herself what she is made of, how she has become what she is today and she takes us with her on her journey of discovery. Her story, told with humour and in mildly self-deprecating style, begins in 1992 when she dreams of emulating Patti Smith and nears its end over 20 years later when her father, now suffering from dementia, mistakes her for Dolly Parton. 

The young Cora answers an ad to become lead singer in a rock band and gets whisked away to London, receiving her free in-flight bottle of wine with glee. She becomes prey to sleazy management, parties wildly, tours with a then little-known band named Radiohead (“…so goddamn…posh…I don’t think they’re goin’ anywhere”) and brushes with Blur.

Director Orla O’Loughlin keeps the production simple, having Bissett front-up a four-piece band made up with Susan Bear, Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke, who play the instruments and share all the supporting roles. Bissett’s music enriches the story, ranging from angry rock anthems to soulful ballads of yearning. Many will leave the show with the pressing question on their lips: “when is the album due out?”

The joys and heartbreaks of Bissett’s private life are not overlooked and there were times during this performance when she was, understandably, overcome with emotion. We share her feelings. We have heard stories of rises and falls in the music business many times before, but never quite like this, never so personal nor with such endearing honesty and raw passion. 

Performance date: 8 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer and performer: David William Bryan


here are too many stories of heroism in past wars for us to take in. We know that the true cost of all conflicts can only be counted in terms of lives lost or damaged, but, in most cases, the individual endeavours of ordinary men and women caught up in them can only be related by passing them down through generations within families. It is such a family connection that gives David William Bryan’s account of the wartime experiences of his great uncle “Joe” its potency.

Young Arthur (familiarly known as Joe) Robinson is just starting work as a packer in 1941. when German bombing of Merseyside docks destroys buildings near his Birkenhead home and takes the life of a close friend. His immediate response is to join up, leaving behind a close-knit family and the girl who is the apple of his eye, regretting that he had not been able to summon up the courage to ask her to dance..

Joe is attached to a Reconnaissance unit, sailing the globe in relatively peaceful waters until, fatefully, he arrives in Singapore at the exact time of the Japanese invasion. He is taken as a prisoner of war, to be deployed in the infamous construction of the Burma Railway. Most of us have seen The Bridge on the River Kwai at some time, so tales of the unbearable suffering of British captives contain nothing new, but Bryan’s athletic and heartfelt performance as Joe makes them freshly engrossing.

This is a story of great courage and of friends and family. Joe’s unlikely friendship with George, a well-educated toff is made moving and real and his family’s devotion touches the heart. His mother’s attempts to get some news of her son’s whereabouts from the War Ministry are thwarted because she gives them the name Joe rather than Arthur, typifying the touches of comic irony that permeate the story. It is the sobering thought that Joe is just one of many ordinary working class heroes, with nothing particularly special about him, that makes this show so special.

Performance date: 6 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Emilia (Globe Theatre)

Posted: August 16, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Morgan Lloyd Malcom      Director: Nicole Charles


The grand library that stretches across the back of the Globe’s stage is unlikely to include any works by the writer Emilia Bassano Lanier, whose long life is being celebrated in an epic production on a scale commonly associated with the plays of her contemporary, William Shakespeare. Unlike him, she is overlooked by history, but, then, she is a woman

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play is part biography, part 16th/17th Century romp and part feminist tract, speaking directly to a modern audience. The different forms do not always sit comfortably together. On a stage extended forward to embrace the standing part of the audience, Emilia’s story unfolds, performed by an all-female cast, dressed in lavish costumes, designed by Joanna Scotcher. Nicole Charles’ expansive production works well in drawing in the audience, but an inability to settle on whether the play is a historical drama or a roaring comedy proves costly.

Three actors – Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson and Clare Perkins – play Emilia at different ages, all three hovering on stage for most of the evening. She was born in London in 1569 and the play’s action takes us through her education and introduction to Court. Always a misfit, she spurns the opportunity to marry, opting instead to be the mistress of Lord Henry Carey (Carolyn Pickles), because such an arrangement will give her the freedom to write. “I will never be at peace so long as I have no voice” she declares later.

Becoming pregnant by Carey, she enters into a marriage of convenience with the gay Alphonso Lanier (Amanda Wilkin) and then meets Will Shakespeare, who seduces her and plagiarises her writing. Possibly, she is the Dark Lady of his Sonnets and she sees in him the opportunities that her gender denies her. Charity Wakefield’s screeching Bard goes straight from witnessing childbirth to writing Love’s Labours Lost. Some of the jokes in the play are better.

Emilia’s life story is fascinating, but diversions into broad and often repetitive comedy become increasingly irritating. Running at just under three hours, the production often feels painfully drawn out and it is the comedy scenes that most need trimming. When the play becomes darker in its later stages, fatigue has already begun to set in, but accounts of Emilia’s efforts to educate and empower abused women from the wrong side of a Thames bridge are still moving.

If we are to believe that Emilia and her cohorts are fighting a real battle for their voices to be heard, the play needs to give them real opponents. Here, the men are all written and wildly overplayed for comedy as if they are a bunch of clowns and, on the evidence that we see, the women would have had them well beaten 400 years before modern feminists came into the picture. This typifies how the play’s inconsistency of tone often undermines its serious purpose, which is to make an impassioned plea for gender equality.

When the play reaches its more solber final act, the tone becomes more constant, building up to a closing speech which has a shuddering impact. Perkins shouts out into the night sky above the River Thames an eloquent denunciation of female suppression over the centuries, her voice filled with fiery anger. Even if much of what has gone before becomes quickly forgettable, this ending will live long in the memory.

Performance date: 15 August 2018

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Meek (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Penelope Skinner      Director: Amy Hodge


“The play is translated from an imaginary Scandinavian language” we are told in the introduction to the printed text and it seems fitting that playwright Penelope Skinner’s solitary dash of humour should be one that is not heard during the 70 minutes performance time. The play is set we know not where and its story is triggered by a song that we are not allowed to hear. In her preoccupation with making her writing oblique, Skinner forgets the we may need some help in connecting with the characters and sympathising with their dilemmas.

The story is a reworking of Saint Joan for the internet age. The army that our heroine Irene (Shvorne Marks) raises is not of soldiers, but of eight million Facebook likes and the ultimate penalty that she faces for dissent in the totalitarian state in which she lives is not burning at the stake, but being stoned to death. The state is Christian fundamentalist and the song that Irene writes and performs in a café is an affront to the principles dictated by its rulers.

A large illuminated cross hovers over the stage as a threatening symbol at the beginning in Max Jones’ dark, minimalist set design. Most of the scenes take place in Irene’s prison cell, her visitors being devoted friend Ann (Scarlett Brookes) and her lawyer Gudrun (Amanda Wright). Skinner challenges totalitarianism and the extremities of faith, asking whether martyrdom can be justified in pursuit of the cause of freedom of expression. The themes are worthy, but they are not new and Skinner seems content to go no further than discussing moral issues, when we want her to do more to delve into the characters’ inner emotions.

Amy Hodge’s direction is efficient, but she does little to bring the play closer to the audience. This cold and unwelcoming piece prompts the suggestion that a title more apt than Meek would be “Bleak”. 

Performance date: 10 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Revenants (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Nichola NcAuliffe      Director: Patrick Sandford


The fascination of screen and stage writers with all things House of Windsor shows no signs of abating, so there is little surprise in finding that a central figure in Nichola McAuliffe’s new play is our present Queen’s grandmother. Much more surprising is the discovery that the key themes of this account of Queen Mary’s picnic in the woods in the later years of World War II are homophobia and American racism.

McAuliffe herself takes on the role of the haughty Queen, playing her as wiser and kinder than the cold fish the we are used to seeing in historical dramas. She is accompanied by Ernest Thesiger (Peter Straker), a closeted gay actor who had appeared in the film Bride of Frankenstein and Walcott (Kevin Moore), her Jamaican British chauffeur. The conversation in the opening scene gives us a potted history of the first half of the 20th Century, during which the Queen dwells on her regret that she and her husband, King George V, had refused requests to help the Romanovs to escape to exile following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

When the conversation drifts repeatedly to figures – Wilde, Coward, Mountbatten and the Queen’s own son, the late Duke of Kent – who were or are thought to have been gay, we get a first hint of the direction in which the play is going. And then, the calm is broken by a young rifle-bearing American soldier, GI Monk (Tok Stephen), who is defecting from the black barracks of a nearby base. Monk educates Her Majesty on the racism that he has to endure both in the military and back home in the Deep South.

This is interesting stuff and well played, but Patrick Sandford’s production has a very old-fashioned feel and the stage design looks makeshift. More significantly, the writer’s aim to give her themes a modern context seem ham-fisted, particularly in an awfully misjudged epilogue which assesses continuing discrimination through to 2018. McAullife has enough experience in theatre to know that, if a story is told well enough, audiences can be trusted to work out such things for themselves.

There are no doubts that Revenants has its heart in the right place. In fact, it shows the makings of a very good play, but it is not there yet and both the script and the production need a lot more polishing.

Performance date: 9 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writers: Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky      Director: Tom Salinsky


With the Westminster Parliament in recess, things have gone a little quiet regarding everybody’s favourite subject – Brexit – so, for those showing withdrawal symptoms, here we have an antidote until things hot up again.

When the United Kingdom as a whole overrode the wishes of Scotland and London among others in June 2016, a seemingly unstoppable course was set for us the exit the European Union. Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s satire takes a crystal ball to look into the not too distant future and sees chaos, with a governing party split down the middle and a main opposition party sitting resolutely on the fence. Well yes, but isn’t that exactly what we have already? The writers’ problem is finding a way to satirise something that is already an utter farce.

The play begins with the duplicitous Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) having just taken over from “Matron” as Prime Minister. He urges his election campaign manager Paul Connell (Mike McShane) to accept a job as his senior adviser, knowing that he will need a scapegoat when things go wrong and appoints to his cabinet to do much the same job  two politicians with diametrically opposing views: Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden) is so fervently anti-EU that he has I Vow to Thee My Country as his ringtone and he is to be Trade Secretary; Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans) an equally fervent Remainiac is to be Brexit Secretary.

Masters also subscribes to a political doctrine, which is to do absolutely nothing, and he plans to continue with transitional arrangements with the EU in perpetuity. At one point, he thinks that things might die down so that the UK could quietly rejoin and suggests this to EU negotiator Helena Brandt (Jo Caulfield). When she advises him that joining the Euro would then be mandatory, seeing the frozen look of horror on Bentinck’s face is almost worth the ticket price on its own.

The play has some good jokes scattered here and there and a quintet of top-class comedy actors makes it all palatable, but we are still left questioning what is the point. Satire is supposed to magnify and expose absurdities, but all we have here is a rather limp comedy that feels uncomfortably real.

Performance date: 9 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Creators: Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special      Director: Taibi Magar


The small town of Hanover sits on what was, during the American Civil War, the Union side of the Mason-Dixon line. Over on the Confederate side, black slaves would enter the “underground railroad” to escape to freedom through Hanover and, hopefully, onward to Canada.

In the modern day, two teachers, a black woman, Caroline (Jennifer Kidwell) and a white man, Stewart (Scott R Sheppard) are teaching history at Hanover Middle School and we, the audience, are their students. To play the game, we are divided equally between the Union and Confederate armies, the objective of the former being to assist escaping slaves and of the latter to capture them. The army with the most slaves wins. The game provides the loose structure for the humorous entertainment which follows, a series of sketches jumping between the Civil War days and 2018. The powerful tool of riotous comedy is deployed to explore the lingering legacy of slavery through to the present.

The show is bold and provocative, brandishing the “N” word like a sharp-edged sword. It is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure as it exposes how mid-19th Century attitudes and values still prevail today, the concept of the mastery of one race over another continuing to infiltrate everyday life in often devious ways. Most daring are segments which explore the nature of inter-racial sexual attraction. After seeing Caroline and Stewart begin to date as supposed equals, we are taken back for a startling scene of master/slave intercourse and then brought back to an equally startling scene with the balance of power having changed.

Inevitably, with a show as fragmented as this, there are segments which work less well than others, but it is at its strongest when it abandons subtlety in favour of full-out, in-your-face comedy, intended to shock and inform. This is not the sort of lesson that most of us will remember from our own schooldays.

Performance date: 9 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: