Archive for February, 2020

Writer: Jean Poiret      Translator: Simon Callow      Director: Jez Bond


Before the 1978 French film, its two sequels, the Hollywood remake (The Birdcage) and the Jerry Herman musical, there was a play, written by Jean Poiret in 1973. So here we go back to basics, La Cage aux Folles with “the play “ being emphasised in the title, presumably to kill off any expectations for one of the main characters to burst into I Am What I Am. 

Simon Callow’s new translation strips away the excessively sugary coating stuck to Harvey Fierstein’s book for the musical and focuses on the original broad farce. Possibly seen as daring almost 50 years ago, Poiret’s depiction of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and attitudes towards them looks quaint from the perspective of 2020, just as Georges Feydeau’s versions of late 19th/early 20th Century infidelity are now viewed as archaic. However, the works of both French farceurs live on, because they build their comedy around ridiculing pomposity and hypocrisy, which are, of course, timeless.

The play’s title refers to a St Tropez drag club, owned  by Georges (Michael Matus) and boasting as its star attraction Zaza, aka Albin (Paul Hunter). Both septuagenarians, they have lived together as a gay couple above the club, for the last 15 years. However, Georges has a 20-year-old son, Laurent (Arthur Hughes), conceived after a drunken night out in Paris, who arrives home with the news that he is about to marry and that the parents of his intended – a right wing politician father and a stuck-up, moralising mother – are planning to drop in for dinner. 

Act one establishes the characters and their situations with such precision that the dinner party mayhem that follows in act two feels like something of an anticlimax. Apart from the names of people and places, Callow leaves very little that is distinctively French in his script and director Jez Bond prefers British regional accents to any that might have come from across the Channel. What matters more is that Poiret’s humour translates into a string of very funny lines and Bond’s featherlight, pacy staging comes up with several clever visual gags.

Georges and Albin are roles that give actors automatic licence to go as far over the top as they want. Matus and Hunter take the licence with flamboyant glee. They are the archetypal bickering “married” couple but the absence of a convincing romantic connection between them highlights where the play is so different from the musical. Hughes has a confident air, playing the straight (in every sense) man to several clowns around him and Syrus Lowe as the outrageous Belgian houseboy, Jacob, steals scene after scene, standing out among a strong company.

Beige decor and an art deco staircase are the key features of Tim Shortall’s classy design,

with risqué paintings and a pink velvet chaise longue in the first act being replaced by religious emblems and a dinner table for the second. His garish frocks, large wigs and feather boas add splashes of colour. It can prove a challenge to keep this type of comedy bubbling non-stop and, sure enough, Bond’s production loses some of its fizz in the final quarter, but not enough of it to dampen a very jolly evening of old-fashioned fun.

Performance date: 19 February 2019

The Dog Walker (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: February 15, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Paul Minx      Director: Harry Burton


In big cities, dog walkers often feel as if they exist in a parallel universe, exchanging greetings and smiles with each other while the rest of the population goes about its business obliviously, showing nothing better than indifference. American playwright Paul Minx recognises that there is something about canines that brings human beings together with this edgy comic two-hander, set entirely in a cramped apartment in New York City.

The tiny Jermyn street theatre does “cramped” well and it looks as if designer Isabella van Braeckel has collected litter from nearby Piccadilly Circus for her set, which is cluttered, untidy and could be as filthy as the script describes it. It is the home of  Keri (Victoria Yeates), a reclusive writer of e-books and a pill-popping neurotic. She dotes on her 16-year-old Pekinese bitch, inappropriately named Wolfgang Amadeus. We gather from the opening scene that Keri is barking mad.

Herbert (Andrew Dennis) is a professional dog walker of Jamaican origin, employed by the International Pups agency. Arriving to take Wolfgang A for a stroll, slyly he takes a swig from a bottle of vodka, before announcing to Keri that he is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who has been sober for 17 years. He is sexually repressed, takes all his guidance from “Mummy” and we gather from the opening scene that Herbert is also barking mad.

Odd couple comedies, in the style of Neil Simon, are not a rarity, but attempts by this one to make itself distinctive lead just to it moving from the predictable to the unpalatable. The only direction that the play can take is towards the troubled pair finding some sort of redemption through each other, but, if Minx intended these two characters to become loveable, Harry Burton’s overcooked production lets him down. Yeates and Dennis give their all, often pushing their performances to levels of near-hysteria, but Keri and Herbert are always more irksome than quirky and empathy is in as short supply as laughter.

Happily, no dogs have been harmed in the staging of this production, but, sadly, no real dogs appear in it. The running time is around 90 minutes, with no interval, and many in the audience could feel a strong urge to go walkies long before the end.

Performance date: 14 February 2020

The Haystack (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Al Blyth      Director: Roxana Silbert


It is often said that the test of a good thriller is the extent to which it can suspend disbelief  and gloss over implausibilities in the plotting. The Haystack, Al Blyth’s debut play, is a spy thriller, a rarity in theatre, and it passes the test with flying colours, while also providing a framework for debates on several burning contemporary issues. Many of the underlying themes are similar to those in Wild, Mike Bartlett’s play alluding to the Edward Snowden affair, which was also staged at Hampstead Theatre.

Staff at the Government’s GCHQ surveillance centre in Cheltenham are told in the play that, in order to find all the needles, you need to see the whole haystack, thereby justifying a strategy in which everyone is suspected of possible ill-doing and not just a selected few. Blyth questions intrusions into privacy and sets the need of Security Services to protest secrets against the role of the press to reveal them. There is a flavour of Kafka in the writer’s depiction of the big state oppressing the little person, but Blyth’s style also taps into the natural fear shared by all of us that mightier powers could victimise and overcome us. With a formula that is a cross between Kafka, Hitchcock and le Carré, the play is a heady brew.

Computer geeks, Neil (Oliver Johnstone) and Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) are assigned to GCHQ under the supervision of the coldly authoritative Hannah (Sarah Woodward), who only answers questions on a “need to know” basis. In London, Cora (Rona Morison) a junior reporter working for The Guardian, is discussing with her editor, Denise (Lucy Black) how to use a potentially explosive story to be gained from her friendship with an exiled Saudi Princess, who is later found dead in mysterious circumstances. GCHQ puts Cora under surveillance and tracks her day and night, wherever she goes and whatever she does.

Morison’s Cora is, at the same time, steely and vulnerable. Too fond of vodka and buckling under the strain of work pressures, she becomes a threat to herself and, when Neil steps out of the cyber world and into the real world to help her, lives begin to unravel. Johnstone is completely convincing, both as the work-obsessed techno wizard with zero social skills and the besotted lover that Neil transforms into. Okoronkwa is also excellent as the laddish Zef, urging his long-time buddy to draw back from the clash between work and private obligations. A segment at the beginning of the second act in which scenes of romance and bromance are intercut slickly, is riveting, but it is just one outstanding feature of director Roxana Silbert’s often dazzling production.

The Hampstead stage is extended to its widest, with a central thrust, to accommodate Tom Piper’s design of multiple moveable screens, which are used for projections of images and also to separate locations. There is always a feeling that someone is watching from the shadows, however far away they may actually be. Silbert injects the fluidity and pace more commonly associated with a fast-moving screen thriller, but ensures that Blyth’s bang-up-to-date, troubling factual references come across with clarity.

The Haystack is a rollercoaster ride that allows little time to pause for breath. Yes, there are aspects of the plot that do not quite stack up, but they only come to mind on the journey home and, by then, it is too late for them to spoil the evening’s enjoyment.

Performance date: 10 February 2020

Photo: Alastair Muir

Time and Tide (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 8, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: James McDermott      Director: Rob Ellis


In a very literal sense, James McDermott’s new comedy, premiering here, is an end-of-the-pier show. Its setting is May’s Caff, realised in Caitlin Abbott’s carefully detailed set design with bright colours and plastic gingham table cloths. The caff stands on Cromer pier, on the Norfolk coast and the writer uses this location as a springboard to question life’s values with gentle humour and explore the dividing lines that separate platonic friendships and something more.

May is in her 50s, unmarried and, like the play’s title, she waits for no man, planning instead to move in with a divorced woman at her home down the coast in Suffolk. She is devoted to Bette Davis and may (or may not) have been a dancer when younger, but Wendy Nottingham puts a spring in her step anyway. She behaves as if a surrogate mother to the two 18-year-old waiters, Nemo and Daz, and fends off the amorous advances of the bread delivery man, Ken. The “For Sale” signs are up over the caff, so the end of an era is nearing.

“Norfolk’s a great place to grow up, it’s a great place to end up, but the bit in the middle – life – no” May tells Nemo, urging him to take up a drama course in London, with a view to becoming “the next Judi Dench”. McDermott writes sensitively about the conflicts between moving on to pastures new and staying at home with friends, family and familiar surroundings. In part, the play is an homage to a dying part of England, one that is being swept away by a tide of globalisation, but it finds parallels on a more intimate level by  delving into its characters’ torn affections as they face up to personal change.

The relationship between Nottingham’s caring and protective May and Josh Barrow’s clumsy and diffident Nemo gives the play its warm heart. Nemo is openly gay and wears his emotions on his sleeve, having been deeply hurt by his closest friend Daz’s failure to turn up at his leaving party. Elliot Liburd gives Daz a cocky swagger as he boasts about his female conquests, but then reveals his inner torment at struggling to come to terms with his real sexuality and his feelings for Nemo.

Ken, played with true gusto by Paul Easom, is an archetypal grumpy old man, complaining constantly about how the world is changing for the worse and believing that there is nothing better than watching an episode of Diagnosis Murder. His specific gripe is how May’s and other caffs on his round are being taken over by the likes of “Pret A Manager”, thereby destroying traditional lifestyles in places like Cromer. Change in the name of progress seems inexorable, but the play asks whether this needs to be the case.

The leisurely pace of director Rob Ellis’s production varies subtly to reflect mood swings between pathos and humour, always allowing four fine performances to flourish. This may seem like a small play about small things, but it is touching, truthful, funny and well worth spending time on.

Performance date: 7 February 2020

Photo: Gail Harland

Writer: Joseph Crilly      Director: Jonathan Harden


Few positives came out of the troubles which plagued the island of Ireland in the final decades of the 20th Century, but at least the theatre has been left with some cracking good plays. If Joseph Crilly’s On McQuillan’s Hill, first staged in Belfast in 2000 and receiving its English premiere now, is not up there with the best of them, it still manages to give an engaging account of a community beginning to heal in the aftermath of violence and confronting the challenges of managing change.

The play’s tone is positioned somewhere between the piercing heartache of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman and the ferocious satire of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It is 1999 and Fra Maline (Johnny Vivash), a Republican dissident, has been released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Peace Agreement to return home to a small rural Ulster village. He seems lost to understand his purpose now that the focus of his life has been consigned to history.

The action all takes place in the village hall, set on a hillside. It is the scene of past revelries, but holder of the keys, Mrs Tymelly (Helena Bereen), is about to hand them over to Fra’s estranged sister, Loretta (Gina Costigan), who is returning from a form of exile in London. When Fra looks out of a window in the hall and observes that the whole world is changing, but the village remains the same, he is wrong. The village is changing too.

Crilly gets the play off to a poor start. New characters are introduced in pairs to talk to each other about past events and characters with whom we are unfamiliar. Early scenes lack context and, by keeping the chief protagonists apart, the writer denies most of the first act the dramatic tension that it sorely needs. At the interval, only solid acting offers an incentive to stay, but everything changes quickly thereafter as the play explodes into life and, for the first time, pitch black humour in the style of McDonagh begins to emerge.

Vivash gives the quick-tempered Fra an edge of danger, as he uses physical intimidation to regain his past dominance. He shows indifference to his daughter Theresa, played with an air of vulnerability by Julie Maguire, and hostility to handyman Ray (Declan Rodgers), a sexual predator who is trying to rekindle his past love affair with Loretta. Fra also reunites with his old buddy and covert lover, Dessie, who is given quiet dignity in Kevin Murphy’s performance. The depiction of a gay relationship, albeit a closet one, is in itself a signal of the many changes taking place in Irish life.

As secrets are revealed, betrayals exposed and taboos faced up to, the drama and the comedy become more intense, but the variations of tone in the writing seem to give director Jonathan Harden a few problems. His production accentuates dramatic confrontations, but there is a suspicion that it does not find all the dark comedy that Crilly has planted and moments of tenderness, meant to be touching, feel slightly awkward. That said, although It’s a slow climb up McQuillan’s Hill, it’s just about worth the effort when we reach the summit.

Performance date: 6 February 2020

Book: Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy      Music: Matthew Sklar      Lyrics: Chad Beguelin      Director and choreographer: Nick Winston


On the face of it, the New York Jets American Football team might seem more likely visitors to Wembley than a Broadway musical, but here we have the revival of a show that ran for a few months on the Great White Way in 2006. Seen previously in a 2017 United Kingdom tour originating at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, The Wedding Singer, is an adaptation of a hit 1998 film of the same name. It starred Adam Sandler in the title role, played here by Kevin Clifton, who is best known as a professional dancer on television’s Strictly…

This is a show that can only succeed as a crowd pleaser and director/choreographer Nick Winston seems to know that audiences will come expecting big song and dance routines. In this respect, they should not be disappointed. Exuberant performers, glitter, flashing lights, loud music and all the show’s best tunes set the huge and totally characterless Troubadour alight, but the irony of the most famous dancer on stage standing as an onlooker throughout most of the routines does not go unnoticed.

Unfortunately, there are also scenes between the big numbers. In them, Winston’s often lumbering staging fails to capture the flavour of the script’s American humour and gets bogged down in a plot that is, to put in mildly, cheesy. Robbie Hart is a wedding singer who, himself, gets jilted at the altar by his girlfriend Linda and falls for waitress Julia, who is engaged to a complete jerk, city trader Glen. We all know from an early stage where the book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy is going, but it takes far too long for it to get there.

Clifton proves to be a lot more than just stunt casting. The pleasing personality, confidence and energy which have served him well on television take him a long way in playing Robbie. A little more subtlety and variety of tone could have taken him still further. Wedding singers are, by repute, fairly ordinary vocalists and Clifton hits that mark comfortably. Similarly, Robbie’s reputation for being a writer of terrible songs allows composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Beguelin to set the bar low for their pop/rock numbers and sometimes they even manage to clear it.

Francis O’Connor’s set and costume designs give the production the feel of New Jersey in the Reagan era, with a large overhead screen suggesting a drive-in movie venue. Rhiannon Chesterman exudes charm and sings sweetly as Julia, Erin Bell is a very saucy Linda and Jonny Fines draws the hisses as Glen. Tara Verloop as the voluptuous temptress, Holly and Sandra Dickinson as the lustful, rapping granny, Rosie both have show stopping moments. 

There are highlights, but, sadly, this wedding is a mismatch of talented performers and sub-standard material. When the production is in celebratory mode, briefly it works, but the overriding impression is of a musical that has been put together mechanically, falling short on both wit and imagination. 

Performance date: 4 February 2020