Archive for October, 2021

Old Bridge (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 28, 2021 in Uncategorized

Writer: Igor Memic

Director: Selma Dimitrijevic


It is possible to think of wartime atrocities either as part of distant history or, in a modern context, as taking place on far away continents. However, we must not forget how recent and how close to our own doorstep were the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. British writer Igor Memic’s 2020 Papatango Prize-winning drama serves as a chilling jolt to the memory.

The story begins in 1988, when the city of Mostar, located in modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina, is still part of Yugoslavia. The historic landmark Old Bridge spans the river which divides the city, vaguely on ethnic lines. It brings communities together, never more so than on one day each Summer when it becomes the scene of a diving competition. Mili (Dino Kelly), a young man from another city, joins the competition and jumps from the bridge, catching the eye of local girl, Mina (Saffron Coomber). She is watching with her friends Leila (Rosie Gray) and Sasha (Emilio Iannucci), the joker in the pack until the jokes turn sour.

Mostar’s people identify as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian and so on; they may be Catholic, or Moslem, or Jewish. Their lives are inter-connected but shifting in ways that Mili likens to a Rubik’s Cube. Mina and Mili fall in love, but the play does not turn into an updating of Romeo and Juliet; the couple’s dreams are shattered not by their own family or ethnic divisions, but by the horrors of the warfare that begins to rage all around them. 

Memic does not concern himself with politics and he teaches us few specific details of the wars taking place in the Balkans region at that time. His focus is solely on the play’s characters, assessing the impact of epic events on their lives. Director Selma Dimitrijevic’s production, on a wide stage, unadorned by formal sets and with few props, conveys a sense of small people caught up in a vast tide of uncontrollable events, but this sometimes comes at the expense of projecting the intimacy of close friendships.

The writer gives the play a historical perspective through the eyes of Emina, who serves as a form of narrator, looking back from around 30 years later. Occasionally, it feels as if this character is being over used; we want the four young people to speak more for themselves and the actors playing them to expand the characters and perform all of their stories. However, much of Memic’s most lyrical and graphic writing falls to Emina and Susan Lawson-Reynolds is a commanding presence, speaking it with great clarity and emotional intensity.

Throughout the play, Old Bridge is seen as a symbol of division and unification, destruction and renewal. Memic gives us a powerful and moving reminder of the fragility of the peace that we take too easily for granted,

Performance date: 27 October 2021

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Ben Brown

Directors: Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley


In 1987, Kim Philby, member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, was living in exile in Moscow, nearing the end of his life. His Communist dream, embodied in the Soviet Union, was crumbling and the Capitalist era of Reagan and Thatcher was on the ascendancy. Against this backdrop, Ben Brown’s play imagines the conversation in a meeting in that year between Philby and the great British novelist, Graham Greene, who had once been his junior in MI6.

The unmistakeable zither music from The Third Man opens the play and provides an immediate link between the two men. Greene scripted the film and, after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby is often referred to as “the third man” to be uncovered as a Soviet agent working inside British intelligence. Philby confesses his suspicions that Greene had based the film’s villain, Harry Lime, on him and the hero, Holly Martins, is  the writer himself, then realising that lime is in fact a shade of green. In their world, nothing is what it seems and Brown exploits the many ironies in the stories playfully throughout the play.

The meeting takes place in the living room of Philby’s Moscow apartment, cosy and comfortable in Michael Pavelka’s design. The fourth Mrs Philby, Rufa (Karen Ascoe), a Russian woman, appears from time to time, but mostly the two old friends who had not met for 25 years are left to reminisce, catch up and probe. They are alone, except for a KGB “minder” probably listening in the next room. Teasingly, his name is Vladimir.

Stephen Boxer’s Philby is an urbane womaniser who shows no outward signs of remorse, even when confronted with the lives lost due to his treachery. Oliver Ford Davies’ Greene has a sardonic air, but his anti British establishment views are much milder. He matches his friend’s duplicity by spinning different sorts of fiction and killing off his creations readily. The vodka flows and, in the play’s first act, the two men tell their stories and rake over widely known facts, but the drama becomes much more intriguing in the second act, when Brown explores the personal cost of actions taken in the past.

To some extent, Brown is touching on the same themes as Alan Bennett in An Englishman Abroad, a play which finds Burgess in Moscow exile and questions the nature of loyalty, betrayal and being forever English. However, these themes are given a fresh perspective and, in a production directed by Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley, they are presented with style and wit.

Cleverly, Brown plants doubts over the veracity of the two men’s words almost as soon as they are spoken. The truth that prevails is that two hours spent in the company of two of our finest senior actors, seen sparring with each other cagily, is pure joy.

Performance date: 16 October 2021

Shepherd (London Film Festival 2021)

Posted: October 15, 2021 in Cinema

Writer and director: Russell Owen


If the universal experience of grieving could be translated into a cinema genre, would it be a horror story? Writer and director Russell Owen’s film explores this possibility as it follows a man traumatised by the death in a car accident of his pregnant wife, who he knows had been unfaithful to him. Feelings of loss, betrayal and guilt blend together in a toxic brew that gradually becomes increasingly horrific.

Eric Black, played with a steely glare by Tom Hughes, is the strong silent type, not given to outward displays of emotion. The word most frequently passing his lips is “Baxter”, the name of his faithful dog. After an aborted suicide attempt and rejection by his censorious, Bible-bashing mother (a fearsome Greta Scacchi), he takes a job on a remote Scottish island, seemingly uninhabited, apart from by the sheep which become his charges.

Apart from an unreliable telephone, Eric’s only contact with the outside world is Fisher, a darkly mysterious ferry woman, played by Kate Dickie as a cross between a prison warder and the Grim Reaper. Haunted by menacing visions of her, his mother and his dead wife (Gaia Weiss), he surveys the island, finding a dilapidated  cottage for shelter, a shipwreck, a disused lighthouse and an unforgiving exterior landscape which offers no prospect of redemption.

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard captures the bleak terrain to chilling effect. Roaring winds, crashing tides and atmospheric music are heard incessantly on the soundtrack, gnawing at the brain and giving no respite from the hostility all around. Creaking floorboards and things that go bang in the night are the stock in trade of horror films and the lighthouse sequence borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the originality of the film’s locations tends to outweigh the most obvious clichés. 

Hughes brings out the vulnerability of Eric, a man gripped by the twin terrors of grief and isolation, and gives the film depth as it moves between psychological dram and supernatural horror. The film’s skill in walking the thin line that separates paranoia from the paranormal makes it unnerving and helps to hold the audience enthralled. A short epilogue back on the mainland feels slightly misjudged and possibly unnecessary, but it still leaves enough intriguing questions unanswered for the film to linger in our thoughts long after the closing credits have rolled.

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Director: Rachel O’Riordan


Surveying the hugely successful career in theatre and cinema of London-born writer/director Martin McDonagh, two features stand out: his fascination with his Irish family heritage and his gift for black comedy. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, dating from 1996, was his first major success and it is also the first in a trilogy of plays set on Ireland’s west coast. In this seemingly tranquil, remote setting, there are dark undercurrents which eventually burst through to the surface, foretelling the style that was to become McDonagh’s trademark.

This revival, directed by the Lyric Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rachel O’Riordan, is co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, where it first appeared. Maureen is a 40-year-old virgin, played by Orla Fitzgerald as a rebellious but over-cautious woman, frustrated by the knowledge that many of life’s best opportunities may have already passed her by. She has a tentative suitor in Pato (Adam Best), who has set his sights on a new life for hem both in London and then the United States.

Maureen’s biggest problem is escaping the clutches of her selfish, scheming mother, Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie as a sharp-tongued and spiteful harridan. She is more preoccupied with moaning about her urinary infection and finding lumps in her Complan than with caring about her daughter’s happiness. The jocular village postman, 

Ray (Kwaku Fortune), pops in daily and hears her barbs.

McDonagh sets up a female version of Steptoe and Son. The dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship are the same; both are repulsed by the ways of the other, but both are aware that they could be tied together inseparably. As the writer explores the boundaries of human tolerance, it becomes increasingly clear that each character, while acting to further her own ends, is equally motivated by spiting the other. The women attack with savage wit, but there comes a point in O’Riordan’s production when they can no longer be seen as comic characters. More sinister forces come into play.

All the action takes place in the women’s colourful but very basic living space, designed by Good Teeth Theatre. An air of foreboding hangs over a generally low-key production, which explodes into fiery life at key moments. This is a competent revival at every level, but it does not really stamp a mark of its own on the play. The chief interest comes from tracing back how one of the most distinctive dramatists of the modern era got started.

Performance date: 13 October 2021

Photo: Mark Senior

Music and lyrics: John Robinson

Book: Phil Willmott

Director: Sasha Regan


Judged alongside DH Lawrence’s greatest novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is commonly seen as more notorious than notable.  Emerging victorious from a famous 1960 obscenity trial, the title became synonymous with sexually explicit material, but the passing of more than 60 years has inevitably diminished the novel’s power to titillate and left behind a rather thin love story that highlights class divides in England at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This musical adaptation of Lawrence’s 1928 work was staged originally at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 2020 and that production has now been filmed for streaming. Recordings of stage shows, hybrids that are neither live theatre nor proper films, became more familiar during the pandemic, but there can be an awkwardness about them which is not entirely overcome here. This recording needs to be viewed as of a show in transition, its eventual destination being possibly a return to theatre or re-emergence as a fully-developed film.

Writer Phil Willmott takes considerable licence in adapting the novel’s story of Constance, the newlywed Lady Chatterley, whose husband Sir Clifford becomes crippled while serving as an officer in World War I; his subordinate, Oliver Mellors, now works as the gamekeeper on his estate and Contance, frustrated by Clifford’s incapacity, begins a passionate affair with him. Willmott jettisons most of the eroticism which characterises the novel to the extent that few could argue with this being described as “a family show”. 

Willmott’s approach results in the sacrifice of Lawrence’s key themes contrasting  physical and emotional love, but it allows a stronger focus on social injustices. Eloquent diatribes against the English class system and the plight of mining communities would have warmed the novelist’s heart. John Robinson’s lyrics rarely rise above the functional, but his soaring melodies orchestrated by Bjorn Dobbelaere and sung powerfully, by the entire company, give the show memorable highlights.

The two central performances are superb. Georgia Lennon brings out Constance’s joy at discovering that there is hope beyond the confinement that her social standing and unhappy marriage has placed her in. Michael Pickering’s Mellors is proud and determined to succeed on his own terms, but overwhelmed by his growing affection for Her Ladyship. Sam Kipling’s bitter and frustrated Clifford contrasts sharply with Jake Halsey-Jones’ Tommy, his flamboyant gay friend who comes closest to providing the touches of light comedy that most successful dramatic musicals need. Emma Lindars is a formidable presence as Clifford’s nurse and Zoe Rogers gives dignity to the character of Hilda, a lowly serving girl.

Andrew Exeter’s two-level set is used cleverly by director Sasha Regan to emphasise class divisions in a production that is generally slick and engaging. Going forward, the show needs more variations in tone, particularly with regard to the music, but, seen as a sneak preview of a work in progress, this recording points towards a possible future hit.