Archive for September, 2021

Blithe Spirit (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: September 22, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Nobby Clark

Writer: Noël Coward

Director: Richard Eyre


Noël Coward is said to have written Blithe Spirit in 1941 during a short holiday in Wales, retreating from the London Blitz. Little could he have imagined that his slight, ghostly comedy would still be getting regular revivals 80 years later, but perhaps its enduring popularity has less to do with the quality of the writing than with the appeal of one character, Madame Arcati. The role has become a magnet for high profile comic actresses from Margaret Rutherford through to, most recently in the West End, Angela Lansbury, who picked up a Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award for it. Now, in a production which originated pre-pandemic at the Theatre Royal Bath, it is the turn of Jennifer Saunders.

It has been proven that Coward’s plays can be reinterpreted successfully for the modern era, but director Richard Eyre is having none of that, opting instead for a cosy, traditional production with an extravagant look. This world of English upper middle class opulence between the wars is now only familiar from very old films, but it feels comforting just as it must have felt to wartime audiences. Designer Anthony Ward creates a mountain of filled book shelves to tower over the stage and a collection of elegant (or, in the case of Madame Arcati, not so elegant) period costumes.

The plot concerns successful writer Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who lives in rural Kent with his second wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon), tended by their hapless maid, Edith (Rose Wardlaw). When hosting a dinner party for the local doctor and his wife (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson), they decide that it would be rather fun to invite along the self-proclaimed psychic, Madam Arcati, to preside over a seance. Inevitably, things go catastrophically wrong and the ghost of Charles’ seductive and mischievous first wife, Elvira (Madeleine Mantock) materialises to cause havoc.

Saunders’ wildly eccentric and mildly shabby Madame Arcati presents a whirlwind image of Edina Monsoon serving as a display stand for an array of Persian rugs. She not so much steals all her scenes as has them gifted to her by Coward, leaving the other members of a top notch cast to take it on the chin.

This is Coward’s darkest comedy in which death is treated as a mere inconvenience. The interactions between Charles and his wives are written without an ounce of romance or marital affection to interfere with the flow of sarcastic barbs. In highlighting the perils of re-marriage, the writer falls short of matching the sparkling wit and sharp insights of his Private Lives and, although diversions into the supernatural are fun, they do not quite compensate.

Eyre’s nimble production generally keeps the laughs coming, but Coward has left two problems which it struggles to overcome. Firstly, Madame Arcati is offstage for long spells in the middle, leading to an inevitable lull; and, secondly, at three full acts, the play is far too long and its primary joke becomes stretched to near snapping point.

Blithe Spirit is a fluffy piece of nonsense that was originally staged to provide an escape from the gloom and doom of the world outside the theatre; in that respect, not much has changed. Saunders is terrific and the play remains, in the nicest possible way, absolutely fatuous.

Performance date: 21 September 2021

Boys Cry (Riverside Studios)

Posted: September 17, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Matt Carnazza

Writer: Christian Graham

Director: Ebenezer Bamgboye


In the modern world, we hear much about concerns for the mental health of teenagers and this lends a sense of urgency to Christian Graham’s Boys Cry. The play, a 50-minute monologue performed here by the writer himself, gives subtle insights into the mind of a 17-year-old disturbed by a traumatic event.

Mark, a student living in South London, is mugged in the street. He is not harmed physically and he loses no possessions of great value, but he sees the attack as a challenge to his masculinity, defined largely through gender stereotyping. He retreats into the fantasy worlds of video games while struggling to regain his foothold in normal college life, all the time confronted by peer pressure and his own perceived failure.

The writer suggests that telling his story to an anonymous audience is a cathartic experience for Mark, who feels compelled to stifle his true feelings, even to his intuitively sympathetic mother. His father is a role model who is unable to open out and thereby confirms the definitions of masculinity found in society as a whole.

Graham’s imposing, muscular build emphasises the play’s point that external appearance can disguise internal turmoil. However, the actor’s physique and his apparent age do not help him to convey the vulnerability and naivety of the Mark of whom he is speaking in the first person. Graham’s Mark would seem likely to be very low on any list of potential mugging victims. These strains on credibility collectively lessen the play’s emotional impact.

Director Ebenezer Bamgboye’s energised production sees Graham pacing around the stage like a caged lion. Lighting, designed by Matthew Carnazza, is particularly effective in stressing Mark’s isolation by picking him out starkly against the backdrop of a darkened stage. 

Boys cry, of course they do, but this play would live longer in the memory if the audience could be more moved to tears too.

Performance date: 16 September 2021

Call Me Madam (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Posted: September 15, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon

Music and lyrics: Irving Berlin

Book: Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse

Director: Mark Giesser


The Summer of 2021 has seen glorious revivals of Broadway musicals from the 1930s and 40s in London and Chichester; now it is time to dip into the 50s, albeit on a much smaller pub theatre scale. Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in 1950 and served as a star vehicle for the legendary Ethel Merman, running for a respectable couple of years.

The show, a frivolous musical comedy, tells the story of Sally Adams, a Washington socialite who is dispatched by the Truman administration to become United States Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. Her direct, unconventional approach ruffles feathers and disrupts the political status quo, while she also forms an unlikely romantic attachment with the soon-to-be Lichtenburg Prime Minister, Cosmo Constantine.

As Sally, the undiplomatic diplomat, Rosemary Ash is brash and vulgar, storming every scene in much the same manner as we imagine Merman would have done. Constantine, suave and slippery, is played by Richard Gibson, previously best known as Herr Flick in the television sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo. He must be happy that there is no need for him to master a new accent. 

Daniel Breakwell as the American aide Kenneth Gibson and Beth Burrows as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg make affecting sweethearts and bring a touch of youth to proceedings, much needed as they are supported by what could possibly be one of the oldest chorus lines in musical theatre history.

Aimee Leigh’s choreography shows little imagination and it rarely  shakes off the flavour of a Derby and Joan tea dance. Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with a geriatric musical. Why should nimble young things have a monopoly on flinging themselves around the stage? However, this production’s problem lies not so much with the company; more it is the show itself that creaks.

The book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse feels tired and stilted and the passing of seven decades has not been kind to the many “topical” jokes. The most enduring of Berlin’s songs have proved to be It’s a Lovely Day Today and You’re Just in Love, both duets, but, sadly, many of the rest serve as a reminder that even the greatest can sometimes have a bad day at the piano.

Director Mark Giesser’s production seems to acknowledge the show’s problems and then accentuate them, but it does not go far enough in the direction of tongue-in-cheek to enter “so bad it’s good” territory, which is, perhaps, a pity. The spark of invention needed to jolt the show into forming a connection with a 21st Century audience never materialises. Call Me Madam is a show which many musical theatre enthusiasts will have heard of, but not seen; they should grab this chance, because it could be a very long time before it comes round again.

Performance date: 14 September 2021

Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Writer: Winsome Pinnock

Director: Miranda Cromwell


Look very closely at one of JMW Turner’s famous seascapes and what do you see? Probably at least one sailing ship which could be a slave ship and, if so, are there any signs of the suffering below its decks? Winsome Pinnock’s play, first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, is built around the premise that inconvenient truths are usually hidden away in history as in art and that slavery is an extremely inconvenient truth.

Lou (Kiza Deen) is a successful black actor working on the set of a film about Turner. She becomes obsessed by her roots and is determined that scenes in the film relating to her character’s back story must not be cut from the script. The play then leaps back to 1840, shortly after the abolition of slavery in Great Britain and its territories. We find Turner embarking on one of his voyages and black communities struggling to come to terms with freedom in a world in which slavery thrives elsewhere and new forms of enslavement are emerging.

As both Turner in the past and the actor playing him in the present, Paul Bradley is a grouchy figure, paying little regard to anything outside his work. Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose stand out in a strong company, giving impassioned performances as Thomas and Lucy, a 19th Century couple who are determined to build a solid family life in an uncertain world. The couple’s daughter, Jess (Kudzai Sitima) is bouncy and optimistic, but, in the 21st Century, a young artist, Billie (Anthony Aje) lacks confidence in his own talent, perhaps reflecting the writer’s frustration that some who are young, gifted and black are still held back by ghosts from the past.

The play is hugely ambitious in setting out to condense events covering almost 200 years into little more than two hours of human drama. The split narrative is both friend and foe to the writer; it allows her to give clear modern relevance to depictions of atrocities from the past, but repeated jumps backwards and forwards in time make the play feel episodic and dilute the intensity of the stories that are unfolding. Occasionally, Pinnock’s approach seems scattershot; she misses some of her targets, but, when she hits, she does so with shattering force.

Performed in the round in the National’s small Dorfman Theatre, director  Miranda Cromwell’s production creates powerful, lingering images to match those in the writing. Haunting music composed by Femi Temowo adds flavour and depth. One minor criticism is that the doubling up of roles in overdone; for example, Cathy Tyson and Matthew Seadon-Young have four roles each, which makes it very difficult to identify with (or indeed identify) their characters.

Setting aside its flaws, Rockets and Blue Lights shines brightly and brings into sharp focus aspects of our past and present that are too often hidden away in dark corners.

Performance date: 2 September 2021