Archive for February, 2023

Writer: Enda Walsh

Director: Nicky Allpress


Irish writer Enda Walsh’s 2006 play, The Walworth Farce, seems like an ideal choice to open Southwark Playhouse’s brand new venue, which is located near to where Walworth Road meets the Elephant and Castle roundabout. So, is this revival well worth seeing or is it just a white elephant?

The new venue is just a few hundred metres from the existing Southwark Playhouse (Borough) which continues to operate. It is tucked in neatly at the foot of a modern tower block. Its two-level interior could be a model for freshly-painted industrial chic, sending a loud and clear message that thrills on the stage will always take precedence over frills in the foyer.

The play is set inside an upper level flat in a Walworth Road high rise, occupied by Dinny (Dan Skinner), an expatriate Irishman who has switched careers from painter and decorator to brain surgeon. Designed by Anisha Fields, the shabby flat has three adjacent doors, giving rise to the promise of a farce in the Feydeau mould, but this never materialises and, instead, we get a nonsensical romp in the Ionesco mould, with a few uniquely Irish twists.

Dinny shares the flat with his two sons, Sean (Emmet Byrne) and Blake (Killian Coyle), both distraught after the funeral of “Mammy” who had been killed by a dead horse. Dinny goes into a rage when it becomes apparent that the wrong shopping bag has been brought back from Tesco’s, ruining his expectations for an evening meal after a long day of brain surgery and setting off a train of fierce family conflicts.

As the three men re-enact scenes from their past in Cork, they assume different characters, switch in and out of drag. At this point, the production is something like an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys on speed and the skills of the actors in ploughing through it is admirable, but the one feat that they are not able to pull off is to make any of their antics funny. It takes the arrival, with the correct shopping bag, of Tesco checkout agent, Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks), to raise some laughs and that is largely because the character is recognisable and believable.

Underlying the mayhem, the writer is exploring the pull of roots and family ties in shaping characters’ lives, familiar territory for many forms of comedy. It would be ridiculous to complain that an absurdist comedy makes no sense, but there are many occasions when Walsh takes too much licence in the name of absurdism and director Nicky Allpress’s frenzied production fails to rein him in. When things quieten down and the pace slows, signs of a decent play start to emerge and the savage beauty in Walsh’s almost poetic writing becomes, fleetingly, beguiling.

The addition of this new venue to London’s off-West End theatre scene is warmly welcomed. Inevitably, future productions will be less site-specific than this inaugural one and, hopefully, they will also be more appealing.

Performance date: 24 February 2023

Windfall (Southwark Playhouse Borough)

Posted: February 15, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Writer: Scooter Pietsch

Director: Mark Bell


After a day at the office, what could be better than an evening at the office? American writer Scooter Pietsch’s comic morality fable, Windfall, takes a broad swipe at office life – its backstabbing, secret affairs, jealousies, frustrations, and so on. The most notable thing that the group in the play are not seen to do is work.

Office manager, Kate (Judith Amsenga), unmarried and senior in years, is a quietly efficient leader. In contrast, Hannah (Audrey Anderson) is separated and prone to bouts of hysteria, seeing herself as Sally Field in Norma Rae. Chris (Wesley Griffith) clings to the guitar belonging to his recently deceased father and drowns his sorrows in booze. Galvan (Gabriel Paul) is a put-upon religious zealot who believes that he is God’s messenger. The lives of these four are humdrum and the only escape could be a winning lottery ticket.

The comedy is slow to gain momentum, but the arrival of boss Glenn (Jack Bennett) brings some fizz. He enters with a tube inserted down his throat to combat a digestive problem, but that does not impede his merciless bullying. The play was first staged in America in 2016 and is meant to be contemporary, but the level of bullying suggests much earlier and this is endorsed by some cultural references and the low-tech office set, designed by Rachel Stone.

Glenn’s surprise is the introduction to the team of Jacqueline (Joanne Clifton) as a sort of spy. Her surname is Vanderbilt and she is taken to be a cut above the rest, but she is actually a single mother who is struggling to pay the bills. She becomes a member of the team’s lottery syndicate and, lured by Galvan’s vision that a $500 million prize will become theirs, all five invest $911 and await their windfall. Needless to say, all does not go to plan.

The first act of director Mark Bell’s production struggles to find the level of buoyancy needed for a screwball comedy and it sometimes plods. However, the investment in character development pays good dividends in a raucous second act in which all standards of decency are gone with the windfall. Bell previously directed the hugely successful The Play That Goes Wrong and he appears well inside his comfort zone when this comedy turns into unrestrained slapstick, performed with admirable precision.

Eventually, Windfall produces a steady flow of laughs, if not quite enough to live up to its title and Pietsch tends to stretch the central joke too far. Running at two hours, including a 20-minute interval (why?), this production suggests strongly that shorter could have meant sharper.

Performance date: 14 February 2023

Phaedra (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: February 10, 2023 in Theatre
Photo: Johan Persson

Writer and director: Simon Stone


There is nothing like a Greek tragedy to add misery to a dark February evening, but not to worry, because Simon Stone’s modern reimagining of The Phaedra myth is nothing like a Greek tragedy, at least not for more than three-quarters of its duration.

in this version, the Phaedra figure is Helen, a high-flying politician, who juggles a shadow ministerial job with tending for her constituents and jointly heading a bickering dysfunctional family. Power-dressed to the hilt, Janet McTeer’s Helen has the air of a woman who is in complete control, at least until a new arrival exposes her vulnerability, leading to her downfall. Paul Chahidi makes excellent use of the comic potential in Hugo, Helen’s unexciting husband, who is used to playing second fiddle, but finds himself increasingly exasperated. 

Stone directs the opening scene, a family gathering, as if he is telling the audience that the chit-chat and the sub-plots are inconsequential, as indeed they turn out to be. The dialogue is rushed through at breakneck speed, making some of it inaudible, but at least it compresses the production’s running time to a bearable 160 minutes (including interval). The play’s real substance emerges in scene two with the arrival of Sofiane, the son of Helen’s now dead Moroccan lover from the 1980s. Assaad Bouab gives him a mysterious, magnetic appeal, which helps to explain why, instantly, Helen becomes infatuated with him. He seduces her (or vice versa) and he then turns his attention to Helen’s unhappily married daughter, Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), making her pregnant.

McTeer and Bouab shine brightly, but neither can eclipse the star quality of Chloe Lamford’s extraordinary set designs, which scream out “people in glass houses…”. The characters, encased in a Lyttelton stage-filling revolving glass box, then throw proverbial stones at each other and at society’s codes of morality. Inside the box, Scandinavian style interiors suggest cold habitats in which lust outranks love and power is all. Irritatingly, the designs reinforce the “fourth wall”, but it constantly intrigues and grabs the imagination.

Throughout the first act, Stone adds deft comic touches to the drama, as if to highlight the ridiculousness of the characters’ behaviour. The second act begins with a hilarious scene of family disintegration in a chic restaurant and this is more reminiscent of early Ayckbourn than of any tragedy, Greek or otherwise. It is a bold move to insert a comedy segment as the prelude to a dramatic climax and, even though the scenes do not blend together seamlessly, the effect is disarming. Bold too is the climax itself in which, lit from the rear, the actors appear only as enlarged silhouettes on the glass.

In all of this, Stone is exploring playfully the clashes between modern sophisticated lifestyles and primitive human urges. Opportunities to expand on the pressures placed specifically on women in modern professional life and on the different attitudes towards them and their male counterparts are largely passed over. The writer seems less concerned with making serious social points than with creating a piece of stimulating and original entertainment.

This Phaedra is inconsistent, over-gimmicky and occasionally baffling. However, its plus points outnumber its flaws and it achieves a strange and seductive quality that imprints itself on the mind.

Performance date: 9 February 2023

Kissed by a Flame (Pleasance Theatre)

Posted: February 4, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Liam Fraser Richardson

Writer: Simon Perrott

Director: James Callàs Ball


Condensing 11 years of grieving into 70 minutes of catharsis, Simon Perrott’s one-act play Kissed by a Flame is a deeply personal account of the pain of losing a loved one and the process of healing afterwards. The writer describes the play as autobiographical, paying tribute in the programme to his partner, who died in 2007.

Director James Callàs Ball’s production is performed, somewhat inappropriately, in a cabaret room; “death is a cabaret old chum” could spring to mind in an attempt to detract from the gloom on stage. Jamie (Ian Leer) and Teddy (Andrew Lancel) were in a relationship for as long as they have been parted when the play begins. Jamie is the type who is always burying his head in the sand, Teddy had been the one to yank it out, so, when Jamie needs to reconcile himself with the past in order to move on with his life, it is the imagined appearance of Teddy that forces him to read an old diary.

The diary covers the final months of the couple’s life together, from Teddy’s diagnosis of oesophagus cancer to his passing. Perrott tells us almost nothing about the characters’ wider lives together or separately, keeping the play focussed narrowly on Jamie’s ongoing trauma and his times with Teddy during illness. Impeccably acted, the partnership, tactile and affectionate, has a moving romantic quality, always overshadowed by the knowledge of tragedy.

The set, designed by Jack Valentine, is a white circular revolving stage with a double bed, draped in white linen at its centre. This gives an ethereal feel to what had been the couple’s living space, suiting the unworldly presence of Teddy. Perrott articulates Jamie’s feelings of loss, helplessness and guilt with admirable clarity, having revealed that he is drawing from personal experience and seeing writing the play as part of his journey to recovery.

When Teddy’s ghost thanks Jamie for all the shared laughter during his final days, it feels as if the writer is inviting himself to introduce some comedy, much needed to relieve the play’s relentlessly mournful tone. Regrettably, the invitation is declined, but, nonetheless, this morbid romance leaves its mark for being heartfelt and truthful.

Performance date: 3 February 2023