Archive for April, 2019

Writer: Louis de Bernières      Adaptor: Rona Munro      Director: Melly Still


Setting a fictional romance against the backdrop of real events in Greece during World War II, Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a worldwide hit. Many thought that the lavish 2001 film version suffered badly from miscasting, but, unencumbered by pressure to place star names in plum roles, Melly Still’s production of Rona Munro’s adaptation for the stage claims a head start over it.

The setting is the Greek island, Cephalonia – “the bridge between the mundane and the immortal”. Munro retains the flavour of de Bernières’ lyrical style and remains broadly faithful to his narrative, charting the perilous tracks of love and war. The play begins with the War seeming far away, but soon Greece is in conflict with Italy and then Germany, leading to an atrocity the memory of which may now have become overshadowed by larger ones.

The island is home to the widower, Dr Iannis (Joseph Long), a dispenser of medicine and wisdom, who lives with his beautiful young daughter, Pelagia, played with spirit and charm by Madison Clare. She flirts playfully with her betrothed, Mandras (Ashley Gayle), while he attempts to loosen the grip of his fiery mother, Drosoula (Eve Polycarpou) before leaving for war. The Italian conquerors arrive, led by their captain, Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni), a dreamily romantic musician who is a misfit in the army. Corelli, billeted at the Iannis house, begins to make music with his mandolin and affection between him and Pelagia blossoms, as sworn enemies become lovers.

It is a story that embraces familiar themes on the futility of war; “hope is a danger, love is treachery” we are told during the turbulence. Still’s direction is fittingly stirring and, only occasionally does she allow the epic to swamp the intimate, thereby obscuring key character details. However, the epic, staged with a company of 15 who play islanders (including animals) and soldiers, is quite something to behold. The casting is perfect, the performances are strong and small touches of humour stand out, such as the arrival of the Italian army, marching while singing Nessun Dorma like half a dozen Pavarottis.

Mayou Trikerioti’s stage design is dominated by a structure that looks at first like a giant rock, but projections and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting transform it to generate images of island paradise, battlefield Hell and natural disaster. Harry Blake’s original music, thrilling in the action sequences and soothing when the island is in relative peace, adds to the spectacle.

Bringing to the stage de Bernières’ curious epilogue seemed bound to be problematic and so it is, but, on the whole, this is powerful storytelling and Still’s production plays as sweetly as Corelli’s treasured instrument.

Performance date: 25 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

On a side street in London’s West Hampstead, lies an anonymous building, its drab functionality belying its purpose, which is to create great art. The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates accepted an invitation to come here and visit the rehearsal rooms of English National Opera for a sneak preview of a major musical revival. A long walk down winding, narrow corridors takes some time, but, on arrival at the destination, the good news is that Frasier has NOT left the building.

Kelsey Grammar, best known for playing Frasier in the long-running American television sitcom of that name, is preparing to take the leading role in a long-awaited new production of the 1965 Tony Award winning Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, not seen in the West End since 1968. With music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a book by Dale Wasserman, the production is the fifth in a series of semi-staged musicals brought to the London Coliseum by producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade in collaboration with ENO. Based on the experience of its four predecessors and on sketches of the set and costumes which were on view in the rehearsal room, the description of “semi—staged” could be misleading. Over 90% staged seems more likely.

The musical tells the story of 16th Century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, imprisoned by the Inquisition, and his alter ego Don Quixote in their quest for justice and freedom. Grammar, who has starred in musicals on Broadway and, very recently, in London (Big Fish at The Other Palace in 2017), will play Cervantes/Quixote. His co-star will be the celebrated Australian/American operatic soprano Danielle de Niese. British musical theatre veteran Peter Polycarpou will be Sancho Panza and Only Fools and Horses star Nicholas Lyndhurst will be a prisoner who becomes an innkeeper.

The rehearsal room, half the size of an aircraft hangar, with whitewashed brick walls and high ceiling, contrasts sharply with the grandeur that awaits at the Coliseum. The large company mills around until director Lonny Price calls order and Grammar emerges to perform the show’s opening song, accompanied only by a piano. When the show reaches the Coliseum, there will be a 30-piece orchestra. Polycarpou follows with I Really Like Him and then De Niese (in costume) with What Does He Want of Me?. Finally West End star Cassidy Janson, who will be standing in for De Niese’s at some performances, mounts the stage to lead the chorus for the show’s most famous song, The Impossible Dream.

Appetites truly whetted, we wait for the dream to become a reality in one of London’s most eagerly anticipated theatre events of 2019.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Pah-La (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 9, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Abhishek Majumdar      Director: Debbie Hannan


It is not often that a drama set in Tibet arrives in Sloane Square, which makes Indian-based writer Abhishek Majumdar’s new play an intriguing rarity. The Tibetan conflict, where Buddhist followers of the exiled Dalai Lama continue to oppose repressive Chinese rule, forms the backdrop to a play that begins in the style of a stirring action adventure, but tails off to become a muddled morality tale.

In a remote Buddhist monastery, novice nun Deshar is a rebel, at odds with both elderly monk Rinpoche (Kwong Loke) and her father Tsering (Richard Rees). Millicent Wong makes Deshar a spirited, strong willed heroine, even if the character’s motivation comes across as vague, and her chief adversary, Chinese Commander Deng is, as played by Daniel York Loh, a forceful, if stereotypical, villain. Deng’s mission is to re-educate Tibetans to accept Chinese ways and, effectively obliterate their own culture and traditions.

Performed on a traverse stage, the first half of director Debbie Hannan’s production taps into the mystery of the Orient. Strong lighting effects (designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun) throbbing music (composed by Tom Gibbons) and choreographed movement (directed by  Quang Kien Van) mark all of the many scene changes and inject excitement into the drama. The climax is a spectacular effect which must have given headaches to Health and Safety officers, but which certainly heats up the action.

Pyrotechnics are followed by a second act that is disappointingly flat and strains credibility to its limits. The action now switches to Lhasa, where Deng is faced with quelling unrest that springs from Deshar’s attempt at martyrdom. His loyalties are torn between family and state as his wife Jia (Tuyen Do) prepares to offer sexual favours in return for information relating to the whereabout of their daughter, feared missing at the hands of Tibetan rebels. In Act I, Hannan’s flourishes go a long way towards concealing poor character development, but here in Act II, the play’s shortcomings become exposed as over-acted melodrama is allowed to take over.

Majumdar expounds a key theme through Ling (Gabby Wong), one of Deng’s officers. She argues that the cause of all conflicts is not tribalism nor faith nor territorial ambition, but fathers, blaming everything on paternalism. This is not the first time that it has been suggested that women would do a better job of running the world than men, but, curiously, the writer does not make the case with very much conviction and Ling’s outburst feels like little more than a diversion.

The bitterness and frustration of a community threatened with extinction under an authoritarian regime are brought out well in the strongest parts of Majumdar’s play, but his storytelling wanders off course and becomes confused. Perhaps he is trying to say too much and, in so doing, says very little that is new at all.

Performance date: 8 April 2019

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Intra Muros (Park Theatre)

Posted: April 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Alexis Michalik.     Director: Ché Walker


French playwright Alexis Michalik’s Intra Muros (rough translation: “within walls”) puts a prison in a theatre and a theatre in a prison. Working around the premise of an acting class for novices, the play could, at first, look more suited to a RADA lecture theatre than to a commercial stage, but, somehow, it defies the odds and wins us over.

The play, translated by Pamela Hargreaves, is getting its UK premiere here in a powerful, fully-committed and fast-paced production. Vertical bars are projected to the full height of the back wall and only a few chairs litter the stage, aside from musician Rio Kai. The writer suggests that theatre is a microcosm of all life, as inescapable as from a prison, and goes on to prove his theories with 90 minutes of comedy, tragedy, heartbreak and redemption.

Actor/director Ché Walker plays actor/director Richard, who is arrogant, self-obsessed and pining over a broken marriage. After losing his job as artistic director of a regional theatre, he returns to London, because that is where his contacts are, and finds that he has no contacts. With little else on offer, he takes a job teaching drama in a prison and Michalik’s play begins with him delivering a lecture on the meaning of theatre to just two inmates – Kevin (Declan Perring), convicted for armed robbery, and Angel (Victor Gardener) in for crimes of passion.

As part of the class exercises, Kevin, Angel and prison worker Alice (Summer Strallen) are asked to open up about their past lives, playing themselves and others. The actors take multiple roles, but, disappointingly, the writer fleshes out the women characters (all played by Strallen and Emma Pallant) less fully than Richard, Kevin and Angel. Michalik is demonstrating the power of theatre for weaving fictions and for revealing truths, but he teases us and we are never quite sure which of these the play is doing at any one point.

Intra Muros comes close to drowning in its own intricacies, but the play always redeems itself, often in the most surprising ways. As layers are peeled away and the stories become unexpectedly linked, the drama turns richer, more involving emotionally, clearer and yet, at the same time, more enigmatic. Perring in particular is adept at riding the waves which take scenes from light comedy to gut-wrenching drama, but all the acting is superb, providing ample proof of Richard’s point that actors become two people – themselves and the characters that they inhabit.

If charged with being introspective, self-indulgent and over-smart, Michalik could easily be found guilty on all counts, yet still, perhaps mysteriously, his play manages to be highly entertaining. This can be put forward to support a final proposition that, ultimately, whatever academic analysis is undertaken, the magic of theatre remains indefinable. QED.

Performance date: 5 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The Noises (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: April 5, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Jacqueline Saphra.     Director: Tamar Saphra


It’s a dog’s life in Jaqueline Saphra’s new one-act play, a creepy canine thriller, directed by her own daughter. Family pet Luna has been a naughty girl, stealing chicken from the dinner table and then…well, best not to tell more. Her punishment is to be shut in a small box room, from which she can hear muffled voices and lots of things that go bump in the night.

The play is a single-hander, performed by Amy McAllister as Luna, who is cut off from the rest of her “pack” with only a bean bag, a blanket and a rubber ball for some comfort. And a few odd shoes are hidden beneath the floor boards. Also in the house are the rest of Luna’s pack – Ma, Pa and their daughter, the dog’s beloved “Ellie girl”, but we only hear them. Their conversations are incomprehensible to Luna, but, instinctively, she understands that something is wrong and she becomes desperate to fulfil what she sees as her duty to protect Ellie.

Luna has a sorry back story, having been abandoned by her first owner to become a stray and then falling victim to an imposing Labradoodle. None of her puppies survived. Now, in relative comfort, she cherishes cuddling up to Ellie and a sense of belonging, even if obeying all the house rules is proving a little difficult for her.

Occasionally, the writer loses the scent and goes off track by concentrating in too much detail on doggy things. Her play, is, in fact, a thinly-disguised parable about the nightmare of helplessness, the fear common to humans and canines of being aware that a loved one is in danger, but being unable to go to their assistance. By tapping into human paranoia, Saphra asks whether a dog’s primal instincts and reactions are very much different from our own.

McAllister’s movement and facial expressions are consistently engaging, but, overall, visual elements are of only marginal benefit to Tamar Saphra’s production. Essentially, this is a radio play, all about words and noises, and maybe it would be better if experienced at home, alone, at night and with all the lights switched off.

Performance date: 4 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer and director: Rocky Rodriguez Jr


In May 1969, newly weds John Lennon and Yoko Ono began their seven-day bed-in for peace in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, a private protest intruded on only by the world’s media. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging, political assassinations had rocked America and Cvil Rights and student protests were in full flow. Perhaps a little light relief was sorely needed.

Recreating the event here in northwest London, a mile or so from the Abbey Road studios, Rocky Rodriguez Jr’s new play puts the demonstration into the context of its day, maybe casting a few sideways glances towards modern entertainers who use their celebrity status to dabble in politics. The Spoonerism in the title suggests a mocking satire, but, sadly, there is hardly any other dash of humour in the play’s entirety.

Craig Edgley’s John is volatile and egotistical, revealing the instability of a man who had been catapulted from Liverpool working class obscurity to international fame and fortune in less than a decade. Jung Sun Den Hollander makes Yoko a calmer force, but still strongly opinionated and an eccentric to Western eyes. Together, they are playful and affectionate, the performances conforming closely to popular perceptions of the couple.

The smell of burning incense fills the air and lighted candles adorn Abigail Screen’s set design for this in-the-round production. Love and peace mantras of the ‘60s, rarely heard since the last revival of Hair, come mainly from the play’s Narrator (Helen Foster), who appears in psychedelic turquoise. However, things that may have seemed profound and sincere in their day now come across as naive and pretentious, exemplifying one of the play’s chief problems – its struggle to build a bridge between past and present.

The World’s media is represented by Thomas Ababio, Lyna Dubarry, Joshua McGregor and Amelia Parillon, who also act as advocates in debates on the burning issues of half a century ago. They are the real world and the writer is pointing out the gulf between them and celebrities who are cocooned in a five-star hotel. In these overlong, rambling scenes, the central characters become mere onlookers and the play loses its focus. That said, there are segments of real passion in the writing and performances, most notably in a fiery and eloquent rant against racism, acted by Parillon.

The show is stretched out to two hours by an interval that benefits only the theatre bar, but, at least the tone lightens considerably in later scenes, culminating in a rousing singalong to Give Peace a Chance. If Rodriguez Jr wants to give his play a stronger chance, he needs to cut and re-shape it. There is enough quality in both writing and performances for it to become a great deal better than it is right now.

Performance date: 3 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: