Archive for October, 2019

Writer: Arinzé Kene      Director: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu


Arinzé Kene’s storytelling, focussing on North London black communities, seems to grow richer with each new work. His self-performed Misty went all the way to the West End and now his latest begins its journey, looking likely to stir things up in sedate Richmond.


In the opening scenes of Little Baby Jesus, the stage resembles a circular playpen, with overgrown toddlers jumping around, gambolling and creating havoc. Three adolescent school kids tell their coming of age stories, learning that “we don’t grow up on our birthdays, it’s at random experiences…” and, in charting a path that leads from harmless teenage rivalry to senseless violence, the writer hits a nerve that is particularly sensitive in our inner cities at the present time.

Rugrat (Khai Shaw) is the class joker and Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) is a queen of sass. Both wear their school uniforms dishevelled as if emblems of mild rebellion. In contrast,  Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin) is neat and tidy, perhaps aiming to impress the mixed race girlfriend to which he aspires or perhaps hiding timidly in the shadow of a twin sister who can run like a female Usain Bolt. The stories chronicle their everyday lives: a ball kicked over a wall and not retrieved, clashes with pupils from a rival school, a“pilgrimage” up north and so on.

The great joy of the play springs from Kene’s sharp-eyed, witty observations and the lyricism of his descriptive writing. As performed here, the play moves from hysterically funny to tear-jerkingly moving in an instant, with comedy, harsh reality and allegory fitting together seamlessly.

Director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s exhilarating production is synchronised beautifully, but there is a strong sense that he has given the three superb actors licence to stamp their own personalities on their characters. The result feels natural and unforced, Kene’s dialogue tapping into the language of everyday life while still elevating it to a higher plane. The  simplicity of the staging adds clarity to the stories, enhanced by strong lighting effects, designed by Bethany Gupwell. A large bright halo that hovers above the stage seems to confirm the play’s theme that the characters’ fates are in the hands of forces beyond their control.

Unavoidably, racism rears its ugly head in the stories, but Kene does not dwell for long on negatives. His play rides the highs and lows of the years of teenage discovery and arrives assuredly at a life affirming destination.

Performance date: 22 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Fast (Park Theatre)

Posted: October 20, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Kate Barton      Director: Kate Valentine


In the modern era, barely a week goes by without some new dietary fad hitting the headlines. Linda Barton’s 70-minute one act play, which is based on a true story, suggests that things may not have been very different more than 100 years ago.

In 1910, Dr Linda Hazard, author of a book entitled “Fast For the Cure of Disease”, is in charge of the Wilderness Heights sanitarium in Olalla, Washington State. Her pioneering methods, based on the belief that the cure for all ailments lies in diet, have already caused controversy in the Seattle press and an investigative hack, Horace Cayton Jr (Daniel Norford) is still on the case. 

The play begins with the arrival of the English Williamson sisters, Dora (Natasha Cowley) and Claire (Jordon Stevens), seeking help from Dr Hazard. Shouldn’t the name have warned them? Poor Claire is suffering from a “tipped back uterus”, Dora’s condition is less clear. Undeterred, the sisters embark on a daily regime of asparagus soup and enemas, their health moving steadily in the wrong direction, pushed along by the domineering doctor, whose confidence in her methods remains undiminished.

“I will not be put down because of my sex” declares Hazard, touching on feminist themes which the play never fully explores. Indeed, there is more information about this apparently complex woman in Barton’s programme notes than in her play and Kate Valentine’s melodramatic production is far removed from a factual account of her life and work.

The tone of Valentine’s production is set by Caroline Lawrie’s over-the-top performance as Hazard, making her similar to one of the demented scientists that we associate with 1950s B movies, a sort of female Dr Frankenstein. As a result, the melodrama is often laughable, working against any attempts to make us empathise with the central character.

Emily Bestow’s austere split-level set design makes Wilderness Heights look like the health spa from Hell, the sisters being forced to sleep in beds that are at least two feet too short for them. This is consistent with a horror story, but that is not what we should be seeing. If Barton’s aim was to turn the spotlight on a little known figure from the histories of medical research and the feminist movement, she has succeeded only in arousing our curiosity. This misjudged production is starved of real substance.

Performance date: 17 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Baby Reindeer (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 13, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and performer: Richard Gadd      Director: Jon Brittain


As an Edinburgh Comedy Award winner and an accomplished actor, Richard Gadd has been acquiring a degree of celebrity status that could draw unwanted attention from over-enthusiastic fans. However, the terrifying and apparently true story that he has to tell, one of obsession and transgression, has nothing to do with celebrity. It could happen to any of us.

An hour-long monologue, Baby Reindeer made grown-up waves at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It transfers to the Bush with 15 minutes added, done without making the story feel stretched. Gadd tells us of his chance meeting with a lady named Martha. In 2013, he is working in London as a barman and he performs a simple act of kindness towards her. He is in his early 20’s, she is 45, rotund, usually wearing pink or purple clothes a few sizes too small for her and displaying a “fierce” sweat on her forehead.

The encounter sparks a chain of events that amount to stalking, trolling and other forms of pestering of increasing severity over a period of years. Messages by text and voicemail range from needy adulation to explicit menace. Martha obtains Gadd’s home and e-mail addresses, his mobile phone number and she even contacts his family. She turns up at his comedy gigs all over the country and taunts him with a bad review (not from this site) of his show. She hangs out at the bar throughout his shifts, waits around on the street where he lives and gives him the nickname “Baby Reindeer”. Santa would not approve.

Director Jon Brittain ratchets up the tension with a non-stop high energy production and the theatre, set up in the round, is turned into a pressure cooker. Gadd perhaps walks a couple of miles or more during the performance, pacing agitatedly around the stage, speaking loudly in tormented tones. Lighting effects (designer Peter Small) add shock and suspense, four screens display text messages and e-mails and the disembodied voice of Martha on voicemail sends shivers down the spine.

Throughout, the authorities seem powerless either to offer support for the victim or provide help to address the mental health issues of the perpetrator. When Gadd Googles Martha, he finds that she has a string of previous offences, but the Police dismiss his concerns, their reaction amounting to a form of gender bias. Their assumption is that male on female stalking is more serious than the reverse because of a man’s physical strength. Perhaps none of them had seen Fatal Attraction.

Gadd’s play is raised high above the level of a routine thriller by the writer/performer’s candid self-analysis. As each calculated move that he makes misfires badly, his confidence ebbs away and he questions his judgement in all areas of his life. He had been psychologically damaged by sexual abuse earlier in life and he looks back at this as he questions his motivation at every turn. He also analyses his relationship with Teri, his transgender girlfriend, a relationship which cannot escape the attentions of Martha.

Gadd brings out emotions of frustration, pity, fear and despair and transmits them to the audience.. Long before the end, we start looking around, wondering if the lady sitting just along the row could possibly be Martha. And then we tremble.

Performance date: 11 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Music: Jule Styne      Lyrics: Leo Robin      Book: Anita Loos and Joseph Fields      Director: Sasha Regan


The 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes took us back to the 1920s, an era when predatory young ladies might have crossed the Atlantic by environmentally friendly means in pursuit of wealthy gentlemen. This stage version, originally seen on Broadway in 1949, seems terribly dated, but a lively revival makes the Union Theatre feel much larger than it is and it still packs quite a punch.

As the blonde Lorelei Lee, Abigayle Honeywill does not look to be unduly daunted by the knowledge that the role is most famously associated with Marilyn Monroe. Her assumed squeaky voice may not help to make her songs easy listening, but she delivers the key number. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, with genuine panache. Eleanor Lakin also has bucketsful of sass as the brunette Dorothy Shaw, Lorelei’s chaperone for the voyage from New York to Paris.

The plot, if it can be called that, has Lorelei going to France to meet her intended, Gus Esmond (Aaron Bannister-Davies), heir to a button manufacturing fortune. Thinking that Gus will abandon her, Lorelei makes a beeline for Josephus Gage (George Lennan) who claims to be the inventor of the zip. Meanwhile, Henry (Freddie King), the geeky son of another millionaire, drunkard Mrs Spofford (Virge Gilchrist), takes a shine to Dorothy. Also aboard  are the flamboyant showgirl Gloria (Ashlee Young) and Sir Francis Beekman (Tom Murphy) a lecherous English gentleman whose eye for the opposite sex rarely wanders in the direction of his wife, Lady Phyllis (Maria Mosquera).

The book, written by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, creaks throughout and all but falls apart in the second half. There are times when we wish that these passengers were sailing on the Titanic, but director Sasha Regan gives the show sufficient buoyancy to see it through choppy waters. Set designer Justin Williams opts for an open stage, giving ample room for Zak Nemorin’s choreography, which blends traditional show routines with distinct, imaginative sequences, particularly in scenes set in France.

Jule Styne’s catchy tunes and Leo Robin’s clever lyrics are of their era, but they still come across strongly today, musical director Henry Brennan helping to make them sound fresh. Period costumes (designer Penn O’Gara) are changed at a frantic rate, posing the question as to where they are all stored at this small venue.

The show is all profoundly silly, but quality songs, zestful dance and an exuberant 18-strong company redeem it. In the end, of course the girls get their millionaires and we get a jolly good evening.

Performance date: 8 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Velvet (Above the Stag Theatre)

Posted: October 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and performer: Tom Ratcliffe      Director: Andrew Twyman


“Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” Noël Coward advised famously, but he could well have added “not your son either”. Tom Ratcliffe’s hour-long monologue, first seen at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, maps out some of the pitfalls awaiting young actors who are trying to make it in their chosen profession.

Directed by Andrew Twyman, Ratcliffe himself plays Tom, a sharp-tongued drama school graduate who is scrambling around auditions and playing bit parts for less than the minimum wage in fringe theatres. He relies on his partner of three years, Matthew, a strait-laced investment banker to help him along. He dreams of his big break, but believes naively that he can take the virtuous route towards achieving it. When a casting director invites him for drinks at his flat, Tom nervously declines and then fails to follow up on a suggestion of going for a coffee, even though he knows that, if he does not do what is necessary to get a part, some other actor will.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, alleged abuses of power in show business and other professions have been well publicised, but knowledge of the infamous casting couch goes back to well before that. Appropriately, a chaise longues is the only piece of furniture on stage with Ratcliffe throughout the show, as Tom details how he gets dragged into what he thinks of as “borderline prostitution”. His own mother encourages him to do what is necessary to achieve his goals, urging him only to stay safe.

The big decisions come when Tom makes contact on Whatsapp with an American called Daniel, who offers him big film roles in exchange for sexual compliance. We hear Daniel’s sinister voice over the telephone, with text messages and exchanged images projected on a screen. In comparison with some of the harrowing real life allegations which have been reported, Tom’s experiences seem fairly innocuous, but they still highlight further the urgent need to expose all sexual predators who hold positions of power.

With the emphasis on gentle comedy, Velvet is lightweight fare, but the hour passes quickly and the likeable Ratcliffe finds an ironic twist to round it all off, bringing wry smiles over the state of the world in which we now live.

Performance date: 5 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The Niceties (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: October 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Eleanor Burgess      Director: Matthew Iliffe


Dramatists are often accused of re-writing and falsifying history, but here, in a twist, we have a playwright who is accusing historians of getting it all wrong. Eleanor Burgess’ play, receiving its European premiere after a successful run Off-Broadway, challenges perceived truths about America’s past, going right back to the Revolution.

The setting is an elite university in the northeast United States. Zoe (Moronke Akinola) is a black 20-year-old student and political activist who has submitted a thesis on the American Revolution to history professor Janine (Janie Dee). Janine is in her 60s, white, liberal and a lesbian. It is early in 2016 and, in unity, the pair sigh sorrowfully that it is Barrack Obama’s last year in office, not having an inkling of what was to follow.

When Janine asserts that America had been lucky to have figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson around, Zoe retorts that this ignores the fact that both owned slaves and she goes on to argue that the version of history that Janine is teaching is “white” history, editing out the half a million black Americans who were also involved. As the daughter of Polish immigrants fleeing persecution, Janine points out that racist atrocities have impacted on her own family’s past, but the student still dismisses the professor’s supposedly liberal credentials as representing being “more afraid of looking like a racist than of being a racist”.

Akinola and Dee are both excellent. If they had been less so, Matthew Iliffe’s production would have been even heavier going than parts of it still are. The play makes us flies on the wall overlooking an academic debate, but this alone is not enough to create a drama. With the roles of teacher and pupil effectively reversed, too often it feels as if Burgess is preaching at us through Zoe. It is only when there is friction between the two protagonists that the drama gains momentum and the writer’s belated attempts to generate a narrative feel contrived.

Zoe’s advocacy of the need for history to be re-examined and re-taught from the black perspective becomes increasingly angry and she becomes increasingly vindictive. In the face of this, Janine’s defence of the conventional “white” history that she has devoted her life to teaching is feeble and Dee makes her responses seem patronising, even cowardly. Perhaps Burgess found it impossible to counter the passionate and eloquent arguments that she has written for Zoe to speak, which is understandable, but, by not finding such counters, she robs key parts of her play of dramatic tension.

Everything in The Niceties is worthy, formulating an articulate case that demands to be heard. It is only in moulding her arguments into a compelling work of theatre that Burgess disappoints.

Performance date: 3 October 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Roy Alexander Weise


By 1950, the year in which Athol Fugard’s play is set, the political system of Apartheid was in its infancy, but the social attitudes around which it was founded had much deeper roots. Initially banned in the writer’s native South Africa, ‘Master Harold’…and the boys premiered in the United States in 1982.

Like so many of Fugard’s works, this play transcends the specific context for which it was written and still speaks loudly to modern audiences. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, realised in gleaming detail by Rajha Shakiry’s set design. It is a rainy afternoon, the customers have gone, leaving the white-coated black waiters, Sam and Willie, to practice the fox trot for a ballroom dancing competition two weeks ahead. They are joined by Hally (aka Harold), the teenage son of the tea room’s white owners. He is making his way home from school, where he is doing badly, but he consoles himself with the thought that so did Churchill and Tolstoy.

The dignity of Lucian Msamati’s Sam dominates Roy Alexander Weise’s masterful revival. Clearly educated and able to discuss history, literature and philosophy, he is forced to withstand Hally’s rebuke: “don’t try to be too clever, it doesn’t suit you”. Proud but compliant, 45-year-old Sam talks of equality as a Napoleonic principle arising from the French Revolution, but he is in no doubt that equality in his own society is well hidden behind a thick veil of injustice.

Willie (Hammed Animashaun) is Sam’s not too bright junior, pre-occupied with learning steps and finding a partner for the dance competition. At first, Fugard writes the exchanges between “the boys” and Hally as comedy, much of it sharp and very funny when played with the precision that it gets here. However, increasingly, discordant words and phrases puncture the humour until, eventually, the play develops into a drama of blistering intensity.

Anson Boon’s Hally is petulant and precocious, even bossing around his own mother in telephone calls. Having an unhappy family life, the tea room is his second home, Sam and  Willie are his friends and the three share happy memories going back many years. Boon brings out the conflict that lies at the heart of the play – that between Hally’s friendships and his ingrained sense of supremacy, both as an employer over employees and, more sinisterly, as a white person over black people.

Fugard’s writing becomes rich with metaphors, such as a the ballroom, where dancers never bump into each other being seen as a blissful haven from a world where people are always colliding. Performed in the Lyttelton Theatre over 100 minutes without an interval, Reise’s production is consistently entertaining and deeply moving. As Sam and Willie fox trot gracefully to the sweet voice of Sarah Vaughan, they leave us with thoughts of unrealised hopes and unfulfilled potential, but also of a human spirit that is defiant and irrepressible.

Performance date: 1 October 2019

This review was originally written fo The Reviews Hub: