Archive for December, 2018

It is quite a distance from the East End of London to the remote islands of the Hebrides, but director Jessica Lazar and her Atticist theatre company are making exactly that journey. Last year they staged Steven Berkoff’s East at London’s King’s Head Theatre and they are now working on a revival, at the same theatre, of Outlying Islands by Scottish playwright David Greig, who is currently Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Breaking the journey, Jessica crossed paths with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at London’s National Theatre.

Atticist began life on a high with Saki, which won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award at the 2015 Fringe Festival and later transferred to Off-Broadway. “Atticist is a group of like-minded individuals who came together for the explicit purpose of putting on Saki” Jessica explains, continuing: “initially there were absolutely no plans to turn it into a company with a long-term artistic development…there was no grand plan at the start…we found just how well we worked together” 

Atticist became an associate company of the King’s Head as a result of the reactions to East, which was found to be drawing in new audiences. On the surface, the company’s work seems very diverse, but Jessica counters that impression, explaining: “we have a sense of style…we have a very strong sense of the company’s stylistic identity; what really appeals to us…is magical realism in the theatre…grabbing something and attacking a subject… perhaps through a prism that is not entirely naturalistic – ensemble based (theatre) that is often quite highly physical, but using whatever story-telling method we believe is most appropriate for the particular story we are trying to tell and being open; we started with new writing and then moved to two revivals, but we’ve been working on further new writing that we’re hoping to put on in 2019; it takes a long time to make something good”.

Outlying Islands looks set to stretch the company’s philosophy further than before, particularly bearing in the mind the constraints imposed by a small pub theatre.  “One of the early stage directions is the sound of a thousand seabirds and the sheer noise of the place is very important toning; the design is…quite heavily based on the sketches of Norman Ackroyd”.

The play premiered in 2002 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre in London. It tells the story of two ornithologists, one from Cambridge and the other from Edinburgh, spending three months in the Summer of 1939 on a Hebridean island to conduct a bird count. When there, they meet with the island lease-holder and his young niece. So what drew Atticist to the play? “ It’s the favourite play of someone in the company” Jessica explains, adding “I really like David Greig as a playwright, I think he’s an extraordinary writer…very, very witty. I admire the fact that he can see the world in a grain of sand, I think he’s a brilliant” 

Praise indeed, but Jessica has yet to meet the writer face-to-face. “We’ve spoken, but never met and it was a very inspiring conversation” she says “but it also filled me with confidence that we were going on a track that would work; he said that he was no longer the playwright who wrote this play…he doesn’t want to tell us anything that we would feel bound by…he’s interested in seeing what we make of it”.

Four characters on an island sounds a little like Agatha Christie and Jessica admits that not everyone makes it out alive. So would she class the play as a thriller? “Thriller, love triangle, very, very funny” she replies; it ranges from very subtle dry humour to frankly slapstick, a lot of surrealism…it all straddles two worlds and it moves from one world to another world, from something that begins with slapstick and ends with this wild passionate unexpected epic. Greig’s got an amazing talent for finding the epic in the every day and the epic in the small situations, but he’s never afraid of the comedy in the grand scheme … within the tragedy of life”.

The comedy and the drama in the play emerge from friction between the characters. Jessica explains: “very quickly everybody begins to be changed or drawn to something by the wildness and the isolation of the island; it’s absolutely mystical…while they’re there, they start to be drawn not only to the island but to each other, tensions crackle, boundaries start to come down, all of the rules that are set on the mainland begin to fade away and the possibility of a new society starts to bubble up in all its many different forms”. 

Jessica believes that the play also touches upon conservation issues that are relevant to the modern world. “It has very powerful resonances for ecological issues today…occasionally those are explicit, but really it’s more about personal responses to ideas of what constitutes value, I suppose what the world owes us and what we owe the world”. She continues: “There is a brilliant line in it when two of the characters have an argument about the phrase ‘supporting life’…so one of the ornithologists contends that the island is supporting life because it has a pristine habitat for a particular bird and it’s untouched… one of the other character counters that supporting life would be selling the island to buy a herring drifter and live in relative comfort when otherwise life is extremely difficult and they are picking a living from any way they can”.

There are no u-boats circling the island just yet, but Jessica notes  “an awareness of war that may or may not be coming”. Explaining the play further, she says: “it’s a mystery, but the mystery is resolved very quickly and it becomes something else…(the characters) discover something, conflicts emerge out of that discovery, dramatic, extraordinary conflicts, and, at that point, something extremely serious happens…and then it’s almost as if the handbrake comes off…everybody is completely liberated and responds in a way that we would never expect and the play passes over into questions that are no longer about conservation and equality and patriotism (becoming) about the oppression and liberation of sexuality and what it might mean for the individual and what society ought to look like”. 

It all seems like a lot of themes to bring out with just 4 (or maybe 5?) characters. “This is why Greig is a genius” Jessica enthuses “because he does…it’s a very hard play to summarise in a sentence…it takes you from something that might look in the first five minutes as a period drama to something that is spectacularly strange, almost mythic, metaphysical, passionate, epic by the near end, passing though mystery and thriller and love story on the way”.

Jessica divides her time between Atticist and working as a freelance director. In 2018, she has directed For Reasons that Remain Unclear at the King’s Head and two productions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Also, she is currently assisting Maggie Norris at The Big House, a theatre charity that works with recent care leavers who are at very high risk of social exclusion; they get “four weeks of rehearsal, four weeks of performance, (they) are held to an incredibly high standard and all the production team are professionals”. On a wider front, she believes that “British theatre is in a pretty good place in terms of what is being created, but, in terms of funding, maybe not, because it’s a struggle”. Funding issues aside, Jessica’s enthusiasm is infectious and a conversation with her leaves a firm impression that she and others like her will leave the future of our theatre in safe hands.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

2018 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 29, 2018 in Theatre

2017 was a vintage year and 2018 was hardly a disappointing follow-up, posing the difficult problem of what to leave out of any list of favourites. Two great musicals opened towards the end of 2017 and, as I saw them early in 2018, they are up for consideration here. I continued with my policy of avoiding regularly performed classics, including many Shakespeares, although I relented for Antony and Cleopatra (National) and Romeo and Juliet (RCS), both of which were outstanding, and a special mention has to be made for the National Theatre’s extraordinary Pericles, which only ran for three performances for logistical reasons, but which gave me my most magical theatre evening of the year.

It was another great year for the National, particularly in the Dorfman, but the Almeida remained London’s most exciting theatre, with a string of innovative and imaginative productions. The following represent my personal favourites, with no suggestions that they were the best (or worst() of the year.



1. The Inheritance (Young Vic/Noel Coward) Close to seven hours, split over two plays, this could well have been judged as a pale imitation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but I saw it early in the year and it has matured in my mind like a good wine and I now think that it could be even better than its illustrious predecessor.

2. Summer and Smoke (Almeida/Duke of York’s) Seeing a wonderful new play is exciting enough, but discovering an almost forgotten masterpiece equals it. Tennessee Williams’ haunting account of a love affair that can never be fulfilled deserves to stand alongside his greatest works and this production does it full justice.

3. Company (Gielgud)  Sondheim reinvented by Marianne Elliot with gender switches that work so perfectly that we question how the show could ever have been done any other way.

4. The Lehman Trilogy (National) American history explored and the American dream exploded in Sam Mendes’ exquisitely paced production of a new play by Stefano Massini/Ben Power.

5. John (National) Annie Baker’s follow-up to The Flick is no less dazzling, moving at a snail’s pace, but digging deep into the human psyche.

6. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo) That rare thing – a British musical that deserves to have everybody talking about it.

7. The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse) A beautifully low-key revival of Peter Gill’s reminiscences of his own involvement in the York Mystery plays and a mismatched love affair with a local farmer.

8. Caroline or Change (Hampstead/Playhouse) Sharon D Clarke unforgettable in Tony Kushner’s musical about racial inequality in America’s Deep South.

9. Ulster American (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh) David Ireland’s blistering comedy, exposing our hidden prejudices and blowing apart many of the rules of political correctness.

10. Hamilton (Victoria Palace) Lin Manuel Miranda’s eagerly-anticipated Broadway musical is slick, ground-breaking and highly entertaining, but perhaps not quite as great as some would have us think.



Female lead in a play – Patsy Ferran (Summer and Smoke)

Female supporting in a play – Frances Barber (An Ideal Husband)

Male lead in a play – Kyle Soller (The Inheritance)

Male supporting in a play – Freddie Fox (An Ideal Husband)

Female lead in a musical – Rosalie Craig (Company)

Female supporting in a musical – Patty Lupone (Company)

Male lead in a musical – John McCrea (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie)

Male supporting in a musical – Jonathan Bailey (Company)

Ensemble in a play – The Inheritance

Ensemble in a musical – Company



New play – The Inheritance (writer: Matthew Lopez)

New Musical – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (book & lyrics: Tom MacRae, music: Dan Gillespie Sells)

Director (play) – Stephen Daldry (The Inheritance)

Director (musical) – Marianne Elliot (Company)



1. Knights of the Rose (Arts) A no-brainer for the top spot, but memories of the howls of laughter in all the wrong places on press night bring some compensation.

2. Nina’s Got News (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh) A debut play by comedian Frank Skinner and, on this evidence, he needs to stick to the day job.

3. The Messiah (The Other Palace) Desperately overlong and desperately unfunny Christmas “comedy”.

The Messiah (The Other Palace)

Posted: December 12, 2018 in Theatre

Writer and director: Patrick Barlow


A recording of Ernest Gold’s theme from the film Exodus features prominently before the lights dim for the beginning of Patrick Barlow’s production of his own play The Messiah. Perhaps this should be taken as a subliminal cue to audiences to heed the music’s title and make their ways out before discovering for themselves just how unfunny what is to follow turns out to be.

40 years ago, the highlight of festive television would have been The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special and the highlight of that show would have been the play what Ernie wrote. In essence, here we have such a play, performed by two comedy actors and complete with a guest singing star, but what might have been a 10-minute sketch is put on a rack and stretched out painfully to two hours, including an interval.

The Morecambe figure is Ronald Breame (John Marquez), a mischievous  clown, dressed in a suit several sizes too small. He acts most of the roles in a Nativity play that is written and produced by the pompous and deluded Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis), dressed like a retired army officer in a brass-buttoned blazer. It took decades for Morecambe and Wise to make their on-screen characters fully-rounded and to perfect their synchronised comic timing, so it comes as no surprise that, in comparison, Marquez and Dennis look like beginners. They try very hard to make the comedy in Barlow’s script work, but they are defeated repeatedly.

The “guest star” is Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Lesley Garrett), who sings arias ranging from Handel to Puccini, without musical accompaniment. Her rendition of Silent Night is exquisite. Designer Francis O’Connor gives the show the correct feel of an incompetent village hall Nativity play, with marble columns in front of a blue curtain that is speckled with gold stars. When the back curtain opens, it reveals a wobbly, cardboard Bethlehem.The design is vaguely Roman, vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely 2,000 years ago and vaguely cheap.

Barlow scored a big hit with his adaptation of The 39 Steps, but this show is more than “just a short tube ride from London’s glittering West End”, as the writer describes The Other Palace. It is particularly disappointing that Barlow relies so heavily on double entendres, Malapropisms and tired, predictable old gags. The programme suggests “Virgin on the Ridiculous” as an alternative title and this would have summed up the level of the humour well.

Even in the season of good will to all, it is difficult to find much good to say about The Messiah. The main consolation is Garrett. She is cast to play what we assume to be a third rate soprano, but, thankfully, this proves to be outside her range. She climaxes with a rousing Hallelujah Chorus and the show ends there. Hallelujah indeed.

Performance date: 11 December 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Anthony Neilson      Director: Alex Sutton


When we see a children’s show that is totally unsuitable for children, somehow we know that it must be Christmas. December 2018 at Southwark Playhouse is ushered in with Anthony Neilson’s 65-minute one-act play, a mix of ingredients that include a Santa’s elf, kids’ toys and glitter along with prostitution, hard drug-taking and bucketsful of ripe expletives. The result is a dizzying cocktail which poses the recurring question “who can this possibly be aimed at?” and never quite provides a satisfactory answer.

Gary (Douggie McMeekin) is separated from his wife and 5-year-old son. He runs Price Breakers, a “back of a lorry” business and, on Christmas Eve, an elf (Dan Starkey) breaks into his warehouse, explaining that he works for the International Gifts Distribution Agency, based in Hartlepool. Following examples such as Miracle on 34th Street and Elf, the story weaves Christmas mythology into real modern living, but its humour lacks consistency and its underlying messages are vague.

First on the scene to help out arrives Gary’s friend Simon (Michael Salami), whose surname is Cowell – “never watch it” is his automatic response to the inevitable comment.  Next comes the sassy hooker Cherry (Unique Spencer), hoping to pick up an Action Man toy for her son, having already paid Gary for it in services rendered. As mayhem ensues, the poor elf, tied up on a chair, becomes frailer and frailer, needing a sniff of the magic dust (a very dubious white powder) that he uses to bring a feeling of Christmas joy into the lives of little children.

Many of Neilson’s jokes hit the spot, others fall on stony ground or get dragged out for too long. There are attempts to inject serious themes or to moralise over Christmas commercialism, but they often feel awkward and out of place. Nonetheless, director Alex Sutton delivers a raucous production that covers up most of the play’s shortcomings and the four actors all succeed in making their characters likeable. If this show is not exactly within the traditional spirit of Christmas, it is certainly spirited.

Performance date: 30 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: