Archive for April, 2023

Retrograde (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Ryan Calais-Cameron

Director: Amit Sharma


The image of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood has already been tarnished for many reasons and Ryan Calais-Cameron’s new one-act play exposes yet another. Retrograde centres on an episode in the 1950s, during the early career of the great black actor, Sidney Poitier. Poignantly, this World Premiere coincides with the death of Harry Belafonte, who is mentioned in the play several times as Poitier’s friend.

The drama unfolds in the office of prominent lawyer Mr Parks, made by Daniel Lapaine to look like an unscrupulous bully. He takes on the role of defender of American value and he is joined by Bobby, an ambitious screenwriter with liberal leanings (“I’m the blackest white man you know”). Bobby has a screenplay about to be produced for network television by NBC and he wants a black actor to play the leading role, choosing Poitier, who is already a friend. Parks has drawn up the contracts and they are waiting to be signed.

Ivanno Jeremiah’s Sidney is amiable, dignified and determined. He does not actually speak the words “call me MISTER Poitier”, paraphrasing the actor’s most famous line, but his manner says it silently. There is a snag. Parks’ contracts include an oath to uphold American values and a denunciation as a Communist sympathiser of the legendary actor, singer and black rights activist Paul Robeson.

The McCarthy era, rooting out allegedly un-American activities overlaps with the start of the Civil Rights movement to give the play its toxic context. Should Poitier sign the oath to further his career ambitions and avoid being blacklisted by Hollywood? Or should he stay true to his friends and his strong personal beliefs by not signing? The clash of ideals makes compelling drama.

Retrograde is an obvious must-see for film buffs, but it raises concerns that go far wider than just cinema history. At one point, during one of Parks’ right wing rants, Lapaine seems to mimic the gestures and speech tones of a recent (and possibly future) American President. This draws laughter, but it could be a reminder that paranoia and hysteria can overtake reason just as easily now as 70 years ago at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Amit Sharma’s fiery production is given a handsome look by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design of Parks’ office and, in the climactic clashes, the writing and the acting are outstanding. The play takes its time to get to the point, but, when it arrives there, the heat that it generates is intense.

Performance date: 26 April 2023


Posted: April 21, 2023 in Cinema

Writer and director: George O’Hara


“When something is burned, its particles are released into the atmosphere to last on forever”. These words resonate strongly with Sid, a novice astronomer who is soon to leave this universe and seeks ways of leaving some tiny mark of his existence.

Kindling tells Sid’s story during a brief Summer period when he is reunited with boyhood friends. He is about to celebrate the third anniversary of being told by doctors that he has up to three years to live. Written and directed by George O’Hara, the film sets out to be a celebration more than a wake, telling us to value family and friendships while we still have them.

The film also pays homage to a perhaps dying vision of rural England; green rolling hills, rustling woodlands, rippling streams and water lilies sleeping peacefully on a small pond. Captured beautifully by David Wright’s cinematography, it all seems much too idyllic, but O’Hara is reminding us that we only borrow the places that we treasure; we cannot own them forever. Likewise our friends.

As Sid, George Somner gives the film is beating heart, embodying the spirit of resilience that pushes the character forward. For him, life goes on until it doesn’t and bonds of friendship are unbreakable. The return of his four friends who have left to build lives elsewhere, sparks the idea of having a huge bonfire onto which each will throw items of personal significance. The friends, Digs (Wilson Mbomio), Dribble (Conrad Khan), Plod (Rory J Saper) and Wolfie (Kaine Zaijaz), each given distinct characteristics by O’Hara, are acted superbly and perhaps their stories deserve to be developed further.

Equally touching is Sid’s platonic friendship with Lily (played with great charm by Mia McKenna-Bruce), a young lady who is unaware of his condition and not part of the group of five. She has low self-esteem, unable to find a direction or purpose in her life. Sid’s efforts to encourage and strengthen her, perhaps hoping that a part of him will live on, illustrate the writer/director’s themes of loss and renewal.

The drama is bolstered by stirring performances from Tara Fitzgerald as Sid’s over-protective mother and Geoff Bell as a father who just wants to be a bigger part of his son’s short life. They are struggling to function as normal while grieving inside for Sid, who is still among them. Harry Brokensha’s soft rock music enriches the film’s youthful spirit and its mood of melancholy.

Kindling is at its most powerful when it is understated, but it walks a fine line between solid drama and mawkish sentimentality. When, particularly in the final third, it crosses that line, it feels forgivable because of the film’s overriding tone of positivity. Nonetheless, best advice is to watch it with a box of strong tissues to hand.

NO I.D. (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 20, 2023 in Theatre

photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Tatenda Shamiso

Director: Sean Ting-Hsuan Wang


Tatenda Shamiso is a female-to-male transgender entertainer. His story is specific, but it has elements which should resonate with any of us who has wasted hours trying to fit square pegs into round holes or hanging on in a long queue, waiting to hear a real live human being speak at the other end of a telephone helpline.

Shamiso performs his short monologue, speaking in tones of sarcasm and frustration rather than indignation. He was born in California of a Belgian father and a Zimbabwean mother and he now resides in the United Kingdom. He refers to his former self, Thandie, as if she is a girl that he once knew or a friend with whom he has lost touch. She was a shy but precocious child, the apple of her father’s eye.

Thandie’s discomfort at being moulded to conform with conventional society’s ideas of what a girl should be is described wittily and the absurd criteria applied to reach a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria are passed over with scorn. However, the process of Thandie’s transition to become Tatenda is not the main target for attack in Shamiso’s play. Rather it is the obstacles standing in the way of establishing a new identity once the transition is complete.

Passport and driving licence details must be amended, National Health Service records need changing, His (formerly Her) Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has to be told and so on. The one-size-fits-all mentality of officialdom overwhelms Tatenda as he strives to establish an identity to open the door to the basic essentials of modern life.

Director Sean Ting-Hsuan Wang gives Shamiso the freedom of the stage to dance, sing and play keyboards. He demonstrates the stifling impact of excessive bureaucracy by showering the stage with reams of paper in anarchic style. A mildly amusing hour passes quickly and the play is never less than enlightening. 

Performance date: 19 April 2023

Snowflake (Park Theatre)

Posted: April 20, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Jenifer Evans

Writer: Robert Boulton

Director: Michael Cottrell


With Spring well underway, snowflakes should be a rarity in London, as rare perhaps as the arrival  of a taut new thriller in modern theatre. Robert Boulton’s play takes classic elements of the genre and updates them for the internet age.

The writer himself plays Marcus, who we take to be an assassin. He is violently aggressive and boastful of his complete mastery of his trade. He barges into a hotel room accompanied by rookie Sarah, who is on her first mission. Louse Hoare makes Sarah an ambitious career woman, eager to learn from an expert, but wary of what lies ahead.The pair bring with them crates full of DIY tools, giving rise to gruesome thoughts about their intended use. The room’s occupant, Anthony, a famous writer is laid flat by Marcus before the intruders have even announced themselves.

While Anthony lies unconscious on the bed, assassin and apprentice assassin joust with each other, dancing gingerly around the purpose of their mission, but not  fully revealing it. At this stage, the characters feel one-dimensional and, rather than wondering what is going on, it seems more relevant to question whether all this has been seen before. In The Dumb Waiter perhaps? Similar layers of menace prevail, but Pinter’s piercing observations and subversive wit are notably absent.

When Anthony comes round, the play itself wakes up. Henry Davis makes the character a fallible human being, filled with real terror, his face caught in close-up and projected onto a large screen. Through his protracted agony, the play appears to be turning into a parable about trial by Twitter, but then it veers off to sprout other less clear philosophical views. In all, there are too many ideas for them all to gel together successfully. As plot twists are unveiled, the play itself risks twisting itself into knots, but it is saved by a gripping, if excessively violent finale.

Director Michael Cottrell’s compact production suits the Park Theatre’s studio space well and designer Alys Whitehead fills the space with a comfortable modern hotel room, which contrasts perfectly with the discomforting goings on inside it. Overall a high level of suspense is sustained for much of the two-hour (including interval) running time.

Snowflakes marks a promising writing debut for Boulton, but his modern thriller is a patchy affair. At times, it grips like a vice and, at other times, it melts away like a snowflake in April. However, there can be no disputing the power of its climax. Hitchcock could not have staged it better.

Performance date: 17 April 2023

Photo: Pamela Raith

Adapter: Liv Hennessy

Director: Lisa Spirling


Many young boys dream of growing up to become top footballers, so maybe the recent surge in the popularity of the women’s game could lead to young girls having the same dreams. Arguably, such goals would be far more admirable than targeting the seemingly vacuous lifestyles of many WAGs (wives and girlfriends of footballers) which were exposed brutally in the 2022 court case Vardy v Rooney, labelled by the media “The Wagatha Christies Trial”.

Liv Hennessy adapts the proceedings verbatim, compressing them into 90 minutes plus injury time, with a half-time break. In a nutshell, Coleen Rooney (wife of former England captain Wayne Rooney) began suspecting that posts on her private Instagram account were being leaked to the tabloid press and turned sleuth to uncover the culprit. When the finger pointed at Rebekah Vardy (wife of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy), Mrs Rooney revealed her findings on social media and Mrs Vardy sued for libel.

The play offers a running commentary from two “pundits” (Halema Hussain and Nathan McMullen), but, otherwise, the words spoken are taken from the trial itself. Jonnie Broadbent and Tom Turner struggle to keep straight faces as the opposing barristers and Verna Vyas presides over proceedings solemnly as the judge, Mrs Justice Steyn. Director Lisa Spirling realises that the transcript of the trial contains enough comedy to fill an evening and, rather than overplaying the absurdity of it all, settles for an overriding lightness of tone. Fittingly, designer Polly Sullivan’s courtroom set does not look like a place where the death sentence would ever have been handed down.

So, as the two ladies parade before us in their neat designer outfits, we ask (if we care) which of them is in the right and which is in the wrong. This production is hardly neutral, highlighting how difficult it is to avoid taking sides when the characters of real life protagonists are interpreted by actors. There is not much to like about Lucy May Barker’s waspish version of Mrs Vardy, sitting in the witness box with the demeanour of a stony faced reform school headmistress. Barker is great, but her every utterance seems to be encouraging the audience to hiss and boo as they would for the away side in a fierce cup tie.

In total contrast, Laura Dos Santos presents Mrs Rooney as smart, warm, maternal and a long suffering victim of the antics of her allegedly errant husband. If the play’s audiences were asked to vote, it is very likely that they would arrive at the same verdict as that of Mrs Justice Steyn.

The media frenzy surrounding the trial speaks loudly about a modern culture driven by social media and worthless celebrity status. Ironically, a West End play about the trial adds to the frenzy as much as it criticises it. No fiction writer could invent this; it is all so utterly ridiculous that it could only possibly be true.

Performance date: 12 April 2023