Archive for March, 2019

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Matthew Xia


London is seeing a resurgence of interest in Athol Fugard. A week after a revival of the South African writer’s politically-charged play A Lesson from Aloes opened at the Finborough Theatre, here comes Blood Knot, a play originally performed in 1961, seen in a 1987 revised version. Apartheid forms the backdrop to both plays, but politics are secondary in Blood Knot, as Fugard undertakes a forensic examination of the human cost of racism and goes directly to its sordid heart.

Morrie (Nathan McMullen) and Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) are half brothers. They have the same black mother, but Morrie’s father is white and Zach’s father is black. They live together in a cramped shack with basic amenities, Morrie dreaming of saving for them to buy a farm together, Zach yearning for a woman. To satisfy Zach’s needs, Morrie finds him a female penpal, Ethel, from a newspaper, but she is white and, eventually, she wants to meet her suitor.

There are elements of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, firstly with Morrie writing Zach’s letters and then, in reverse, with Morrie planning to stand in for Zach at the meeting with Ethel, because he is able to pass as white. However, Fugal eschews romance and takes the play into dark and disturbing territory when he explores how adopting the guise of a white man changes Morrie fundamentally.

The scenes have symmetry, each beginning with Zach trudging home after a hard day’s work, while Morrie is preparing a simple meal. Fugol’s writing style, contrasting sweet lyricism and harsh realities, gives each scene poignancy and beauty. It is not made clear why Morrie does not work and the writer gives the character only a sketchy back story, suggesting that he has returned home to his brother after a period away during which he had been unable to find a sense of belonging in any section of South Africa’s racist society. 

It is hard to imagine a venue more suited to this play than the Orange Tree. Director Matthew Xia’s production is taut, claustrophobic and highly atmospheric. Two single mattresses lie in opposite corners in Basia Bińkowska’s set design, with the audience making up the the four walls of the brothers’ shack. Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting casts a warm glow, with birdsong and music composed by Xana adding to the perfectly-judged ambience.

The two actors are simply superb, making the brotherly bond utterly believable. McMullen generates a sense of unease, stemming from Morrie doubting his place in the world, the only certainty being that his part-whiteness gives him a responsibility to take care of Zach.  Ssebaneke’s Zach shows acceptance of his place at the bottom of the social pile, tackling hardships with good spirits. After over two hours in the company of these brothers, we begin to care about them and wonder how they might have fared in the new post-Apartheid South Africa.

Performance date: 13 March 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Music and lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin       Book: George S Kaufman      Director: Mark Giesser


George S Kaufman’s satirical book for the musical Strike Up the Band takes us into the realms of utter fantasy. The writer’s proposition is that America in 1927, a country of political corruption, tax fraud, protectionist tariffs and deindustrialisation, is led into war against barely-armed opponents (Switzerland) by a blustering business tycoon. How preposterous this all seems in 2019.

Ultra-patriotic Horace J Fletcher (Richard Emerson) is the bullish boss of a cheese manufacturing giant, delighted when his government imposes 30% import tariffs on cheese and incensed when the Swiss raise objections, not even paying the full postage for their letter of complaint. It has to mean war. In true Swiftian style, Kaufman packs his script with plot and detail, putting a weighty burden on what could have been just a flimsy musical and the strain shows, particularly between songs.

This 1927 show represents American musical theatre in its infancy, a huge leap backwards from, say, Hamilton, and it is fascinating to assess how things have evolved. The show would need a much bigger makeover than director Mark Giesser is able to give it here to match it up to modern standards, but its appeal owes much to its dated feel. The art of blending book and musical sequences together seamlessly is not quite mastered, leading to awkward links and songs that do not seem to fit. However, when those songs are by George and Ira Gershwin, a lot can be overlooked.

The show has standard numbers, such as the title song, The Man I Love and I’ve Got a Crush on You, but it is a particular pleasure to have the opportunity to appreciate lesser-known Gershwin pieces and to hear them sung by fresh talent in the style of a bygone age, long before they started to put on full-blown musicals above pubs. A seven-piece band under musical director Bobby Goulder works well, tucked in behind screens, supporting a company of ten.

Heading for the conflict in Switzerland, there is a hissable baddie (David Francis), a mysterious interloper (Nicholas McBride) and a presidential aide (Robert Finlayson). “What a lovely place for a war” declares socialite Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) as she surveys the Alps. Romantic interest is provided by Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) and rebellious reporter Jim (Paul Biggin), along with Mrs Draper’s daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) and cheese factory worker Timothy (Adam Scott Pringle). The mission seems an expensive folly, but Fletcher reassures his troops “I can make Switzerland pay for the cost of this war”, strangely echoing a similar, more recent promise.

It matters little that the show is, yes, cheesy or that Giesser’s production is a little rough around the edges. It all adds to the charm of this joyful nonsense in a revival that strikes all the right notes.

Performance date: 8 March 2019

Photo: Andreas Lambis

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The Project (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: March 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Ian Buckley      Director: Anthony Shrubsall


It is 1943 in German occupied Westerbork in The Netherlands. Jews are being forced to wear yellow stars and are held in a transit camp, pending the publication every Tuesday of the names of those who are to be moved east to a camp which we presume to be of a far worse kind. Ian Buckley’s new drama, with a little music and dance, takes place in this ominous setting and focusses on a troupe of entertainers who put on shows for their fellow inmates and their “hosts”.

Five of the play’s six characters wear the yellow star, the sixth being Mike Duran’s slimy Conrad Schaffer of the SS, who sports his swastika with pride. Schaffer proves that he is not all bad when he calls for medical assistance after he has shot a random detainee in the foot, but the fact that he does not give a Nazi salute is not enough to disqualify him from being labelled a stereotype. The character sets the tone for a play that packs in just about all the stale clichés seen in abundance in World War II dramas for more than 70 years.

Victor (Lloyd Morris) is the resident impresario at the camp, organising and hosting cabarets featuring dancer Anna (Faye Maughan), her boyfriend, singer/songwriter Peter (Nick Delvallé) and her ungainly sister Millie (Eloise Jones). Learning that the name of their hospitalised mother (Cate Morris) appears on next Tuesday’s list, Anna and Millie go into a spin and Anna accepts an invitation to give private dance lessons to Schaffer in the hope that he will reprieve her. In the event, the German proves to be an inept sexual predator, settling for just a waltz and a kiss.

Credit is due to the actors for ensuring that Anthony Shrubsall’s lifeless production does not fall into the “so bad it’s good” category, but it is often a struggle for them. When Victor’s rather quaint show is performed at the beginning of the second act, the thought occurs that Buckley could have intended his play to have become a musical along the lines of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, but, sadly, the performance ends having taken the drama nowhere.

Buckley ’s plotting fills up a powder keg, but then he forgets to ignite it. Time and again, promising scenes are set up and then driven into blind alleys and, for all its earnestness, this tepid wartime drama achieves about as much gravitas as an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo!.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Janet Suzman


The abomination that was Apartheid has been consigned to the history books, but the voice of South African playwright Athol Fugard lives on. A Lesson from Aloes, which was first staged in 1978 and received its UK premiere at the National Theatre in 1984, has been robbed of some of its urgency by the passage of time, but its themes, relating to all those living under authoritarian regimes across the world today remain loud and clear.

Piet and Gladys are an ageing Afrikaner couple, liberal supporters of political reform in their country. It is the Autumn of 1963 and strong winds are heard howling around their small suburban house in Port Elizabeth, named, perhaps ironically, Xanadu. Piet, a former farm owner,  has a passion for poetry and an obsession with aloes, resilient plants that thrive in arid conditions. Gladys, who has returned home after treatment for a breakdown, cherishes her private diaries even though her isolated lifestyle gives her little to record in them. The couple are preparing for the arrival of old friend Steve, a mixed race activist, who has recently served six months in prison for defying a banning order. 

Dawid Minnaar gives Piet a quiet dignity; he is a man rooted in his homeland as securely as his aloes and resisting the political system only passively. Janine Urfane’s moving performance brings out Gladys’ mental fragility, showing her to be a broken woman, living on without any real purpose. “I am a human being, not a prickly pear” she protests to Piet, who interacts with her as if he is walking on eggshells. Her torment had been started when the authorities had seized her diaries and violated her privacy.

The arrival of Steve (David Rubin) at the beginning of the play’s second act provides the catalyst for the release of the tensions that have been bubbling under the surface. He is about to embark, with his large family, on a boat to England to find a better life. Gladys wishes that she and Piet could take a similar route to escape the clutches of a South African society that is dominated by repression and suspicions of betrayal. However, Piet remains rooted and Steve taunts him with “If I had a white skin, I’d also find lots of reasons for not leaving this country”.

As director, South African born actor Janet Suzman, delivers a tortured political drama, made more atmospheric by the warm glow of Mannie Manim’s lighting and Rachael Murray’s sound effects. Norman Coates’ set design makes ingenious us of the confined space, encompassing an outside patio area and Gladys’ bedroom retreat. 

In this play, Fugard concerns himself less with the direct horrors of Apartheid than with the wider effects of authoritarianism, the tentacles of which stretch across society. He seems to be talking to all those who support change, but resist direct involvement. It is this emphasis which gives the play much of its ongoing relevance and it is the strength of the characters which gives force to its messages.

Performance date: 5 March 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Story writers: Henry Devas and Jesse Velik      Director: Jez Pike


There are few things sadder than a tragic clown and, in Henry Devas’ new play, Matt is very sad indeed. “Fat, ugly, awful breath, terrible comedian” he is told, making it little wonder that he has just come close to jumping off Tower Bridge. However, he is saved for this world for a little longer and things rapidly get much worse for him.

Danny Kirrane’s Matt strikes an affective balance between comedy and pathos. The jokes are dreadful, but the actor makes clear the extent of the chronic depression from which Matt is suffering, thereby signalling from the outset that the play may ultimately have a serious purpose. Pressured by relationship difficulties and the responsibilities of new fatherhood as much as by his inability to raise laughs, Matt finds himself holed up in a remote room with two menacing men. Tristabel (Tom Canton) is a controlling bully and Benzies (Daniel Portman) is a violent psychopath. Both seem to be pushing him towards making that final jump.

All the action takes place in a tight corner of the Park’s square studio space, Elizabeth Wright’s design of a dingy room, with boarded up window and door, affirming the gloomy air of the writing. At the centre of the room is a ladder, ascending to “up”, whatever that may mean. The play takes the form of an absurdist comedy, short on explanations and overflowing with clumsy symbolism, but Devas never shows complete mastery of the genre and the first hour has the feel of a pilot for an edgy sitcom that Channel Four might have declined to commission.

Two further characters, Christopher and Chris, both played by Liam Smith, appear later, as the writer takes the play, firstly, further into the realms of absurdity and then back to the real world. Looked at from the perspective of the pathos in the closing scenes, Devas has written a meaningful, if confused, allegory that probes into the torment in the mind of a potential suicide victim and, with suicide rates among young men growing at an alarming rate, he earns respect for offering any insights.

Director Jez Pike gives the production an intensity that is sustained consistently throughout the two acts. However, there are many times when it feels that the play is not worthy of the actors’ commitment to their roles. Laddish jokes, macho posturing and relentless bullying make many scenes thoroughly unpleasant and very tough to watch. As a result, some in the audience could feel inclined to take a view opposite to the play’s title. 

Performance date: 1 March 2019

Photo: Chris Avis

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: