Archive for July, 2019

Writer: JM Barrie      Director: Sally Cookson


Say it quietly but London theatre seems to be booming. 2019 has seen a string of brand new venues announced, which include two Troubadours – this one at White City houses separate 1,200-seat and 800-seat spaces, while a sister theatre at Wembley Park is a single 2,000-seater. These are ambitious projects, but, to launch them, tried and tested family shows that bear the brand of the National Theatre (War Horse will be at Wembley Park) look like solid choices.

Sally Cookson’s revival of Peter Pan, a co-production with Bristol Old Vic, was seen at the National’s Olivier Theatre over the 2016/17 Christmas season. The larger space here is purely functional, with none of the ornate decor associated with the West End, but the awfully big adventures of the boy who refuses to grow up bring all the glitter that is needed.

It is often forgotten that, before the pantos, the ice shows, the films and the book, Peter Pan was a play, written by JM Barrie in 1904 for the theatre. Cookson takes extravagant  licence with the original and in twisting common interpretations. Until quite recently, the eponymous hero would have been played by an actor who is female and petite, but John Pfumojena’s hyperactive Peter is neither. Similarly, Captain Hook would have been male and bewhiskered, but, clearly, Kelly Price, attired in a frilly purple skirt, is also neither. And then there is Shiv Rabheru’s craggy, crabby Tinkerbell, an anti-fairy if ever one existed. 

It takes time for the show to take flight. The opening scene is made even duller than usual, played out in front of a dark curtain. Mr and Mrs Darling head off for a night on the town and, dismissing worries about what might fly in (or out of) the bedroom window, they tuck in their offspring. Would the pre-teen children of an affluent Edwardian household really have slept three in a double bed? Daisy Maywood is a delightful tomboyish Wendy who leads her younger brothers (Ammar Duffus and Alistair Toovey) through the window and on to Neverland in pursuit of Peter.

Once the curtain drops to reveal Michael Vale’s bright, open design, the new theatre also shows its colours, facilitating Peter’s flight to the very back of the expansive auditorium. Neverland appears like a cross between a ‘60s hippy commune and a scene from The Rocky Horror Show. Amid all the frolics, Cookson makes no attempt to suppress the darker themes that swim beneath the surface of Barrie’s writing like the huge crocodile that is realised here by Toby Olié’s puppetry. Price makes Hook a truly tormented soul and she doubles as the warm matriarch of the Darling family, adding a fresh layer to the Freudian subtexts.

One drawback with Cookson’s non-stop avalanche of inventiveness is that it tends to create diversions that obscure the main thrust of the narrative. Most adults know the story inside out, but some children at the press performance seemed to have problems figuring out what was going on. However, thrilling action, swashbuckling fights and breathtaking flights prove irresistible and Benji Bower’s excellent score, played by a rock band, turns the second half into a near-musical.

The ageless appeal of Peter Pan relies not only on fantasy and spectacle, which this production delivers in abundance, but also on the manner in which the story connects with common experience. Cookson’s eccentric revival never loses sight of Barrie’s affirmation that real life, even though it includes growing old, must be better than Neverland.

Performance date: 27 July 2019

Photo: Steve Tanner

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Devisor: Phil Young      Director: PJ Stanley


Phil Young, a one-time associate of Mike Leigh, devised the short play Crystal Clear in 1982 using improvisation techniques. It is hard to see why White Deer Theatre has opted to to revive such a stilted piece now, although not seeing is what it is all about.

The Old Red Lion Theatre has a cosier than usual feel, carpeted and with cushioned seating along all four walls. The whole play takes place in the cluttered flat of Richard (Gareth Kennerley), a picture dealer who is blind in one eye and suffers from type one diabetes. However, Richard’s luck at the beginning of the play is not all bad, as he has not one, but two girlfriends. 

The first to appear is Thomasina (Gillian Dean, whose own sight is severely impaired), a blind woman who needs to be guided around the flat to avoid tripping over the futon and various items, such as a tool box and Richard’s underpants, lying around on the floor. Voices of actors are heard describing movement on behalf of the visually impaired and this gives PJ Stanley’s production an air of worthiness, drawing good will from an audience which roots for the play to become better. It never does so.

Girlfriend number two is the belligerent Jane (Rakhee Sharma) who demands more of Richard’s time and gets furious when she finds an open copy of Penthouse lying around the flat. Suddenly, Richard is struck completely blind while bidding for a painting, causing his life and both relationships to go on a downward spiral. How will he remember where in his flat he has left his cigarettes or how much Scotch is left in the bottle?

In telling us what it is like to lose one’s sight, the play goes no further than stating the obvious and its conclusions are desperately depressing. The production has the forethought to provide an audio commentary for the benefit of the visually impaired, but maybe they would have appreciated notes of optimism and positivity in the play far more.

The actors, most notably Kennerley, perform their roles with intensity, but, repeatedly, they are defeated by some truly dreadful dialogue. Ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that it is not enough for a production to have worthy intentions if the play that it showcases is as dull and lacking credibility as this.

Performance date: 25 July 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Blues in the Night (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2019 in Theatre

Creator and original director: Sheldon Epps      Director: Susie McKenna


Not seen in London for 30 years, Sheldon Epps’ anthology of a couple of dozen or so blues songs, some very familiar, many not, gets a sizzling makeover that should lead to someone penning “The Why So Long? Blues”. Denied any running narrative and given only vaguely drawn characters, this revival relies for its success on its sense of time and place, four stellar leading performances and the enduring appeal of songs by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and others.

The setting is a run-down New Orleans hotel, the rooms of which inspire Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues. The Lady (Sharon D Clarke) runs the joint, showing maternal devotion to guests, The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton), but disdain towards The Man (Clive Rowe). The Lady sits in her square room, puffing on cigarettes, while the two females sit in their rooms, also marked as squares, on the opposite side of the stage. There is a feeling of isolation, but also of community.

Robert Jones’ set design makes full use of the Kiln’s deep stage, scattering it with art deco lamps, and Neil Austin’s wonderfully evocative lighting transports us to a place where free-flowing Bourbon can drown an abundance of sorrows. In the hotel lobby, musical director Mark Dickman’s five piece band, plays virtually non-stop. There is no time for spoken words when there are blues to be sung.

“I ain’t gettin’ older, I’m gettin’ better” Clarke declares, hearing no dissent from the audience. The 2019 Olivier Award winner for Caroline, or Change is fitting in this production between Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic and its West End Transfer. Does this phenomenally talented performer ever take a holiday? Hopefully not!

The great skill in Epps’ creation, realised beautifully in Susie McKenna’s revival, is seen in how a compilation of songs about heartbreak, abandonment, loneliness, despair and so on is turned into a feel good entertainment. As performed here, the songs are laments only in part; more importantly, they become celebrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Injections of comedy also contribute greatly, as typified by the lighthearted bickering between The Lady and The Man. As one of Rowe’s ovations is dying down, Clarke growls “I can’t stand it!” adding resentfully “but he sure can sing”.

Running through August, Blues in the Night guarantees a scorching Summer for this part of north west London. The word “blues” has something to do with depression, a condition for which this joyous show is the perfect antidote.

Performance date: 24 July 2019

Photo: Matt Humphrey

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Games for Lovers (The Vaults)

Posted: July 19, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Ryan Craig       Director: Anthony Banks


Poking fun at the mating rituals of the British is an age old pursuit, picked up on by Ryan Craig in this new comedy, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that very little changes over the years. The play devotes itself more to re-working familiar situations than to finding modern perspectives and, coming from a writer who has an impressive record of recent successes, it proves to be a disappointment.

Designer Simon Scullion decorates the traverse stage with geometric shapes in garish colours, giving Anthony Banks’ production a jazzy feel, but not altogether a modern one. We enter a world where twenty somethings make passing references to Tinder and the like, but where snappy chat-up lines at the bar are a great deal more prevalent than anything on Snapchat. Could this be this be 2019 or, perhaps, 1979?

The self-proclaimed master of chat-up techniques is inept Lothario, Darren (aka “Juan”), played with a jaunty swagger by Billy Postlethwaite. He is a dating dinosaur, the sort of man who, 40 years ago, would have been wearing medallions on chains around his neck. Darren sublets a room in his flat to the timid Martha (Evanna Lynch), who is infatuated with a doctor at the hospital where she works. Only rating her a six-and-a-half, Darren takes her in, calculating that her presence in his home will prove less tempting to him than an eight or a nine.

Martha’s friend from school days is PE teacher Logan (Calum Callaghan), who also happens to be friends with Darren and a student of his in the art of chat-up. Logan’s new girlfriend, Jenny (Tessie Orange-Turner) is a website designer with a tendency to get too close to her clients. She is the most modern of the four characters. Her relationship with Logan is threatened by an unsatisfactory love life, which leads to role-playing in which she becomes a Belarusian whore.

At its best, Banks’ production has energy and a dash of wit and, at its worst, it has neither. There is a very slight narrative thread running through, but the show plays out like a series of independent, short comedy sketches of varying quality and what emerges is a quartet of thinly-drawn characters who are going through the motions of coupling for no better reason than it is what they believe they are supposed to do. Romance and emotional connections play virtually no part.

Predictable though it is, much of what goes on is mildly amusing, but the play’s overriding problem is that too little of what is has to say is new.

Performance date: 17 July 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Fiver (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 7, 2019 in Theatre

Book, music and lyrics: Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees


The Little space at Southwark Playhouse is turning into fertile territory for new British musicals. Just a few weeks after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button emerged as, arguably, the fringe hit of 2019, here comes a refreshing offering from a young team that can already stake a credible claim to becoming the next Rice/Lloyd Webber.

A street busker sings Change Is Bringing Me Down and gets the eponymous note in his jar as a reward. The note is passed on to a homeless person who spends it at a newsagent on scratch cards, before it goes in change to a young man who has just bought a birthday card. The passing of the fiver around its many owners links together a cycle of humorous, romantic and melancholic songs.

The busker is co-writer (along with director and music director Tom Lees), Alex James Ellison, who reappears through the show with his acoustic guitar, like a wandering minstrel. Four highly talented actor/singers – Luke Bayer, Dan Buckley, Aoife Clesham and Hiba Elchikhe – play all the characters in the linked stories, showing remarkable versatility. A four-piece band accompanies the songs.

There are times when the fiver gets forgotten, but, being of the modern plastic variety, it proves durable. The show also takes a long detour with what amounts to a songless revue sketch about a surprise party. What emerges overall is that the real linking theme is about the problems of young people making the transition from childhood to adulthood more than about any form of money. Love, loss, depression, exams, bullying, stalking, the generation gap and becoming parents all feature in a show that often feels like part of a cathartic process to counter the pain of adolescence.

If musicals stand or fall on the quality of their songs, this one definitely stands. Encompassing a variety of musical styles, intelligent lyrics combine with catchy rhythms and lovely melodies throughout the show. The writers’ work, switching effortlessly from light to shade, shows no traces of the kind of bland and predictable pop that has dragged down so many British musicals over the years.

The title invites a five-star review and it is tempting, but the show needs further work to knit all its elements together more tightly. That said, at this stage, lack of polish matters less than freshness and conviction. When creators and performers seem to believe in their material as much as this, audiences have to believe in it too.

Performance date: 5 July 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: