Archive for December, 2019

2019 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 30, 2019 in Theatre

On the face of it, 2019 was less vintage than the two preceding years, with fewer brilliant (5-star) productions. However, the year was rich with quality, making it difficult to restrict a list of favourites to just ten. So I haven’t!

The National Theatre continued to fluctuate between (in my opinion) the great and the ghastly, which is its job. The Almeida may have slipped very slightly and, rather worryingly, the Donmar Warehouse, Hampstead Theatre and the Royal Court are all absent from my favourites. London theatre of the year has to be Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic, which has produced a string of hits and has even gone some way to resolving front of house problems. London Fringe Theatre of the year is Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.


1  West Side Story (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

With the 1961 film now looking very dated, Sarah Frankcom’s re-imagining of the classic Bernstein/Sondheim musical was sorely needed. Nothing about her thrilling, modern production disappointed (btw I haven’t seen the Leicester version – yet).



2  Present Laughter (Old Vic)

Director Matthew Warchus delivered a definitive, hilarious version of the play, with a brilliant gender reversal to make Noël Coward’s sub-texts work even better. Andrew Scott was in blazing form.





3  Hansard (National Theatre)

Echoes of Albee’s …Virginia Woolf in Simon Woods’ debut play, a witty and moving account of clashes between political beliefs and private anguish. Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan were magnificent.




4  Downstate (National Theatre)

A co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Bruce Norris’ play painted a devastating picture of the hopelessness of  former prisoners who can never be fully integrated back into society.




5  Dear Evan Hansen (Noël Coward Theatre)

Proof that Broadway musicals don’t have to be glitzy spectacles. A modern tale of teenage angst takes us to unexpected  places, finding levels of truth and tenderness that Hamilton could never come near. Pasek and Paul’s songs are the icing on the cake.






6  Faith, Hope and Charity (National Theatre)

Alexander Zeldin’s play focussed on desperate situations at the very bottom of our social ladder, but somehow managed to highlight the hope amid the faith and the charity.




7  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)

F Scott Fitzgerald transplanted to Cornwall, this tiny British musical cast a magic spell over Elephant & Castle.




8  Death of a Salesman (Young Vic/Piccadilly Theatre)

I confess that this is the one Arthur Miller play that I’ve never been able to stand…until now. Co-directors Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell, with a superb cast led by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke, came up with a production which deserved to raise the roof and (unfortunately) did so literally.







9  The Son (Kiln/Duke of York’s Theatre)

After tiresome comedies, seen in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory, French writer Florian Zeller returned to the top form of The Father and The Mother with this gripping examination of teenage depression and parental oversight.



10  Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre)

With a plot resembling that of a ‘70s disaster movie, this Broadway musical told of what happened when a group of disparate characters were thrown together by the adversity of 11 September 2001. The show could have benefitted from a few more decent songs, but Christopher Ashley’s vibrant direction and an exuberant company won the day and it proved impossible not to be carried away by the euphoria of it all.

11-25 (alphabetical order): A German Life (Bridge Theatre), All My Sons (Old Vic), Anna (National Theatre),  Baby Reindeer (Bush Theatre), Blood Knot (Orange Tree), Fiver (Southwark Playhouse), Leave to Remain (Lyric Hammersmith), Little Baby Jesus (Orange Tree), Lungs (Old Vic), Master Harold and the Boys (National Theatre), Pinter at the Pinter season (all eight),  Small Island (National Theatre), The Doctor (Almeida Theatre), The Hunt (Almeida Theatre), The Ocean at the End of the Lane (National Theatre).



Female in a play: Lindsay Duncan (Hansard)

Male in a play: Andrew Scott (Present Laughter)

Female supporting in a play: Sophie Thompson (Present Laughter)

Male supporting in a play: Luke Thallon (Pinter 5 and Present Laughter)

Female in a musical :Jenna Russell (The Bridges of Madison County)

Male in a musical: Sam Tutty (Dear Evan Hansen)

Female supporting in a musical: Rebecca McKinnis (Dear Evan Hansen)

Male supporting in a musical: Andy Coxon (Curtains)

Ensemble in a play: Faith, Hope and Charity

Ensemble in a musical: Come From Away



New play: Hansard

New musical: Dear Evan Hansen

Director (play): Jamie Lloyd (Pinter at the Pinter season)

Director (musical):   Sarah Frankcom (West Side Story)



1  When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other (National Theatre) The name of Cate Blanchett could certainly sell the tickets, but it proved beyond the powers of even this supremely gifted actor to sell Martin Crimp’s preposterous load of tosh to many of those who bought them..

2  Hell Yes I’m Tough Enough (Park Theatre) Unfunny, out of date, juvenile political satire which could only have found approval among supporters of of the Member of Parliament for the constituency in which the Park is located (Islington North).

3  Peter Gynt (National Theatre) Noël Coward had a few unflattering things to say about Henrik Ibsen’s play in Present Laughter and none of them were disproved by David Hare’s tedious re-working, which seemed utterly pointless.



Preludes (Southwark Playhouse) The sort of off-Broadway musical that would be raved over when performed in some basement in Greenwich Village, but it’s a mystery why Dave Malloy’s psychoanalysis of the young Rachmaninov was generally well received here. Baffling, pretentious and largely tuneless (apart from contributions by “Rach” himself).



Sweet Charity (Donmar Warehouse) In theory, it should be hard for a professional company to go wrong with this classic musical, but Josie Rourke’s lacklustre production managed to disprove the theory. Anne-Marie Duff has won an Evening Standard award for her performance in the title role, which poses a question as to whether their voters actually saw the show.

Once a low-budget Irish film with an Oscar-winning song and then a Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical, Once, with a book by Enda Walsh and music/lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is now embarking on an extensive tour of the United Kingdom. The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates, who admits to having seen Once twice in London’s West End, dropped in on rehearsals in a studio on the fringes of the City of London business district.

Starting at Fairfield Halls, Croydon on 19 December and ending at New Theatre, Hull on 25 July 2020, the tour will take in 26 venues in England, Scotland and Wales. Daniel Healy, who has played roles in the show previously, will be Guy, the central character, a Dublin busker who is down on his luck and about to give up. Emma Lucia will be the Czech girl who gets him back on his feet. It is an uplifting story of redemption through love, music and love of music.

Emerging from a large group of actor/musicians, Healy stepped forward to put heart and souls into the song Leave, accompanying himself on guitar. Lucia then appeared, tinkling an upright piano, as the pair drifted into the haunting Oscar-winning duet, Falling Slowly. They were mesmerising. The style of the music, a fusion of soft rock and traditional Irish folk, made the show unique when it first appeared, but Musical Supervisor Ben Goddard commented on similarities with the current hit Come From Away, which, ironically, is playing at London’s Phoenix Theatre, home to Once for over two years.

Director Peter Rowe is Artistic Director of the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, where he has worked on a production of this musical previously. The main setting for the show is a Dublin bar and, in the West End production, the audience was allowed to go on stage to buy drinks during the interval. Sadly, Rowe confirmed that this will not be possible on tour, but, judging from the exuberance of the company in this rehearsal, spirits will be lifted high enough anyway.

Often, when we see actors appearing to play musical instruments on stage, we question whether or not it is for real, but, in the rehearsal room, there is no hiding place. All members of the company here really do play guitars, violins, cellos, accordions, etc as they move around in character to Francesca Jaynes’ choreography. Asked whether it is more important to cast actors who can pass as musicians or musicians who can pass as actors, Rowe gave the diplomatic answer, claiming that everyone here is equally good as both. There was nothing seen or heard at this rehearsal to justify disputing his claim.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Curtains (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Posted: December 18, 2019 in Theatre

Music: John Kander      Lyrics: Fred Ebb      Book: Rupert Holmes      Director: Paul Foster


The team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb lies behind some of Broadway’s most enduring successes – Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and so on – all musicals with a sharp cutting edge. Curtains, on which Ebb had been working (with Kander) at the time of his death in 2004, centres around a murder, but its overriding tone is much gentler and more affectionate than that of those famous predecessors.

Curtains opened on Broadway in 2007 and ran for over a year, no doubt helped by the star power of Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce in the leading role of Police Lieutenant Frank Cioffi. Here, for the show’s West End debut, Jason Manford, best known as a stand-up comedian, takes over the role in Paul Foster’s production, which was intended for touring the United Kingdom, but has been given a short run at Wyndham’s Theatre, due to an early closure.

The plot could have been used in a routine episode of Murder She Wrote; not so much a whodunit? as a whocares?; happily, this is not the point. It all enfolds inside a theatre and the show within a show, a version of the Robin Hood legend transplanted to the Wild West, looks destined for even less success than Lionel Bart’s Twang! What matters is that Cioffi loves it, making a bid to take over from the hysterical British director, Christopher (Samuel Holmes) who learns that he is a murder suspect and declares: “it’s an honour just to be nominated”.

Rupert Holmes’ book wanders off course occasionally when struggling to negotiate the convoluted plot, but compensation comes with a flow of witty one-liners casting hefty swipes at all types of theatre people, including critics, chief among which is the dastardly Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles). When the dire leading lady is murdered while taking her bows on opening night in Boston, theatre mad Cioffi is called in to investigate. Suspects include the avaricious producer, Carmen (Rebecca Lock in show-stopping form), the lovestruck composer, Aaron (Andy Coxon) and one-time lyricist, now replacement leading lady, Georgia (Carley Stenson).

Manford enters, wearing trilby and raincoat, soon resembling a cross between a small boy let loose in a toy shop and a sleuth with the deductive powers of Inspector Clouseau. His comic timing can be taken for granted, but he also proves to be a decent singer who is unexpectedly light on his feet. Cioffi becomes part of one of the plot’s romantic strands, making sweet music with showgirl Niki (Leah Barbara West).

When it comes to musicals about theatre, Curtains is not quite up there with Kiss Me, Kate or Follies, but Kander and Ebb’s songs, all in traditional and slightly old-fashioned Broadway style, are far from disappointing and Foster highlights the show’s strengths to great effect. Show People has the familiarity of a standard, even though the musical is new here, the beautiful I Miss the Music is sung with emotional power by Coxon and Lock literally growls her way through the cynical It’s a Business.

Days when a touring production may have felt an inferiority complex are long gone and this one slots into the West End comfortably. Alistair David’s choreography and Alex Beetschen’s band never fall short, while the entire company shows the confidence and commitment to make the evening fun. As the curtain fell on Ebb’s career, it seems apt that he should have left behind this warm and humorous love letter to the art form which he graced for almost 40 years. 

Performance date: 17 December 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Neil Gaiman      Adaptor: Joel Horwood      Director: Katy Rudd


The National Theatre’s dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane could pass as their Christmas extravaganza for kids (12+) or it could be viewed as a dark psychological fantasy which speaks to those of us who are much older. Actually, in common with great works by Barrie and Tolkien, to which Gaiman makes explicit references, this show can be both.

The structure of Gaiman’s story, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, holds the key to the writers’ themes. A middle-aged man (Justin Salinger) returns to his childhood home, remembering a 12th birthday on which the lodger killed himself in the family car. The writers are inviting us all to re-visit the anxieties of our pre-teen years, when protected childhood was ending and an adult world full of secrets and demons was opening up before us, like a vast, unexplored ocean.

Dreams and reality intersect in the flashbacks which follow. The 12-year-old, played with commanding presence by Samuel Blenkin, appears and Salinger becomes his vain single Dad, who is struggling to cope with bringing up the friendless boy and his irritating younger sister (Jade Croot). An encounter at a duck pond with the mysterious Lettie Hempstock (Marli Siu) brings the boy his first friend and introduces him to her mother, Ginnie (Carlyss Peer) and grandmother (Josie Walker) who, he learns, possesses supernatural powers. Soon the pond becomes a much larger expanse of water, stretching to the far reaches of the imagination.

Director Katy Rudd and Movement Director Steven Hoggett come up with a seemingly endless flow of imaginative effects and thrilling original music composed by Jherek Bischoff gives a cinematic feel to the action sequences. Quick changing sets, designed by Fly Davis are lit with a magical glow by Lighting Designer Paule Constable and an extended thrust stage in the Dorfman Theatre gives ample room for the spectacle. However, the venue also allows for intimacy, which is essential to the story, much more effectively than would have been possible in either of the National’s two larger houses.

A new lodger in the boy’s family home, Ursula (a gloriously villainous Pippa Nixon) turns quickly into his arch enemy. The trauma of his extreme isolation, brought out strongly in Blenkin’s performance, leads to the production’s most disturbing scenes. The horror of a child’s powerlessness when faced with adult aggression is as shocking as any of the grotesque monsters created by Samuel Wyer’s puppet designs and the realistic image of a bloody arm rising inexplicably from a pure white bathtub is more terrifying than any nightmarish fantasy.

Younger children could become distressed by much of the content of this show and the National’s age recommendation needs to be respected. Most young teens should be swept along by the spectacle and adventure on display, while their elders can be pondering over the deep undercurrents that are so powerful in Gaiman’s tale.

Performance date: 11 December 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

I Wanna Be Yours (Bush Theatre)

Posted: December 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Zia Ahmed      Director: Anna Himali Howard


At first glance, I Wanna Be Yours is a tender romantic comedy, charting the uneven path of true love for a fairly typical modern couple. However, Zia Ahmed’s 80-minute one act play is much more than that. It incorporates remarkable insights into multicultural Britain, showing how racism, often non-malicious and unintended, finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of everyday life.

Like the writer, Habeeb (Ragevan Vasan) is a poet from North London. He is a Moslem, the son of a Pakistani immigrant family. Ella (Emily Stott) is a Yorkshire lass who has moved to South London. They meet, they fall in love and the play sees them moving through Ramadan, Christmas, birthdays, a holiday and meetings with each other’s families, forever navigating around the treacherous minefield of political correctness. All very normal it would seem, but somehow not. Racism is the elephant in every room that the couple enters and they give it a human name – André.

Ahmed makes his points without preaching and rarely touching on defeatism or negativity. He knows that comedy is the sharpest tool in a playwright’s box and he uses it with precision, adding astute observations on working class London life. Vasan and Stott tune into the writer’s humour perfectly, developing an on-stage chemistry which makes the whole thing entirely believable.

Director Anna Himali Howard’s production relies heavily on movement, directed by Jennifer Jackson. The appearance of a sign language interpreter could perhaps suggest an interloper in the corner of the stage, causing an irritating distraction. In fact, Rachael Merry’s contribution gives exactly the opposite effect. In an inspired innovation, she plays an integral part in the choreography, used almost as an animated prop, throwing in some hilarious facial expressions for a bonus.

This is a joint production between Paines Plough and Tamasha and the simplicity of the staging will make it easy to take the play to communities all across the country. Here we have a studio space, a few chairs for the audience and a shabby carpet. All that is needed is for three actors, hopefully as good as these, to take off their shoes and socks and the show can go on. An eye opening delight.

Performance date: 7 December 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Whistle Down the Wind (Union Theatre)

Posted: December 7, 2019 in Theatre

Adaptors: Russell Labey and Richard Taylor      Music and lyrics: Richard Taylor      Director: Sasha Regan


Written in 1989. the Russell Labey/Richard Taylor musical adaptation of Whistle Down the Wind preceded the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman version by some seven years. Neither has proved to be a huge success, but this revival of the earlier, coming at the time of year when the show’s action takes place, at least strikes the right seasonal note.

Mary Hayley Bell’s story was filmed in 1961 with her own daughter, Hayley Mills, already a Disney child star at the time, in the leading role of Cathy. Directed by Bryan Forbes and with a screenplay by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, the film slotted into the new wave of working class realism that was sweeping over British cinema in the early ‘60s and the challenge for Labey and Taylor was to make the storytelling relevant almost 30 years later. Now, three decades further on, director Sasha Regan is reviving a production which she staged originally at the same theatre in 2015, 

Cathy, played here with a clear zest for life by Sadie Levett, is the oldest of three siblings, leading the way for the mischievous Charles (George Hankers) and the inquisitive Nan (Tara Lucas). Their strict father (Stuart Simons) is a widower and they are looked after by their aunt (Fiona Tong) in their farmhouse during a bleak, cold  Lancashire December. When Cathy finds a bearded man (Juan Miralles) hiding in the barn, she immediately decides that he is Jesus returned to Earth and involves the other children in her conspiracy of silence. They are all oblivious to the fact that there is a murderer on the loose in the area, being hunted by police.

The story centres on children’s blurred vision of good and evil, setting childhood innocence against adult cynicism and pitching the blind faith of the young against the hollow faith of their elders. The three children are a joy, but Miralles’ “Jesus’ is a benign figure, lacking the menace to give the drama a sense of danger to contrast with the children’s sense of awe. 

The show is set at a time of post-war austerity in a small community dominated by oppressive Christianity and figures of authority – the policeman, the vicar, the school teacher – drawn strongly in Regan’s production. The children attend Sunday school, perform their dreadful Nativity play and speak of the Mayor of Burnley as if he is a superstar. Their closeted world has a charm which we associate with a bygone age.

The show’s key song, I Don’t Know What They’re Waiting to Hear, is sung beautifully by Miralles, but, otherwise, Taylor’s songs leave us with little to whistle as we leave the theatre on a windy night. Nondescript music and lyrics, particularly in the first act, fall flat when the show needs to be lifted and fail to deliver the stand-out moments that any musical needs.

For once the tiny Union Theatre does not need to pretend to be bigger than it is. This is a small scale show that is well-served by its surroundings. Justin Williams’ plain sets and Hector Murray’s atmospheric lighting respect the story’s simplicity, with Reuben Speed’s costumes looking spot-on for the period. This is a show of low-key pleasures offset by some disappointments.

Performance date: 5 December 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: