Archive for May, 2023

Writer: Jacob Marx Rice

Director: Alex Howarth


With no weddings and umpteen funerals, Jacob Marx Rice’s new play certainly lives up to its title, except perhaps for the brevity of the list. It is often said that Shakespeare’s tragedies can be summed up with the words “they all die”, but Marx Rice strives to outdo Hamlet and Macbeth combined.

The play addresses how we deal with mortality, both our own and that of those around us. Grace (Vivia Font) struggles with it first when she is four years old in 1983 and her dog Buster dies. She blames her parents (Alejandro De Mesa and Kathryn Akin) for not allowing her to say goodbye. She grows and forms a close platonic friendship with Jordan (Siphiwo Mahlentle), who suffers from depression and is prone to suicide attempts. Later, she enters into a romantic partnership with Cass (Amelia Campbell), they adopt a son, Melaku (Mahlentle again) and the circle of life and death goes on.

Spanning more than eight decades of loss and renewal, the play is broken down into shortish scenes, each of which is built around the death of a person or a family pet. When every new scene begins, we ask who is for the chop this time, making the play feel repetitive and predictable. It is this lumbering structure that does more than anything else to undermine the writer’s worthy ambitions.

Marx Rice is a New Yorker and the play’s setting is Irish America. Accordingly, the actors assume American accents and it feels that the dialogue would not have sounded right if spoken in any other way. A mix of homespun philosophy and syrupy sentimentality gives the drama a distinctively American feel, its tone bringing reminders of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. At times, it is almost as if James Stewart could be about to walk in through the door.

For all its gloom, Marx Rice’s script is not bereft of humour and director Alex Howarth applies a light touch to break up the solemnity. Making imaginative use of the Finborough Theatre’s intimate space, his production is particularly notable for the committed and versatile performances of the five actors, who move between ages and emotions with great comfort.

There is no shortage of ideas in this play and often the writer expresses them beautifully. However, they need to be knocked into better shape and packaged with more precision. As the play approaches the end of its 90-minute running time, it seems fair to believe that it has not been brief enough.

Performance date: 18 May 2023


Performers: Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe


Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe began their professional partnership during lockdown, she in her kitchen and he in his garden shed. From the worst of times comes the best of times.

After the spectacle of Eurovision, there could be no greater contrast than this. No flashing lights, no dancers, no deafening noise; just two performers singing songs, every one of which is worth douze points. Most noticeable of all is the emphasis put on the songs’ lyrics, all delivered with absolute clarity, so that the work of master lyricists such as Johnny Mercer (‘not the Tory politician”) are dusted down, polished up and presented as if brand new. The melodies are not bad either.

Pulman possesses a pitch perfect musical theatre voice and Stilgoe’s nimble fingers make a single grand piano do the work of a full orchestra. Both come from show business families. She has the philosophy:  “life is too short not to sing the songs that you love” and she sharpened her comedy skills with Fascinating Aida. He could have developed his natural flair for writing and performing routines that combine music with comedy by picking up a thing or two from his famous father.

The primary source of material for this two-hour show (including interval) is the Great American Song Book, updated to include the likes of Billy Joel and Randy Newman alongside Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael and so on. Some of Stilgoe’s original songs are thrown in too, but, oddly, the duet that gives the show its title is omitted. There are cultural references which may go over the heads of anyone in the audience under 70, but, whether it comes from nostalgia or from discovery, the joy is plentiful.

Pulman’s soulful rendition of songs such as the blissfully melancholic The Folks Who Live on the Hill contrasts with Stilgoe’s comic mash-up of pieces ranging from Nellie the Elephant to Duran Duran’s Rio. However, two duets stand out; the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs People Will Say We’re in Love and If I Loved You, from different shows but saying essentially the same thing, merge together wonderfully. After that, the 1925 Henderson/Dixon classic Bye Bye Blackbird is united with the 1968 Beatles’ song Blackbird to memorable effect.

The cue is given to pack up all your cares and woe and head for wherever this couple of swells are on stage next. Summing up appropriately with a line from a Cole Porter song: “What a swell party this is!”.

Performance date: 15 May 2023

Photo: Alesandro Castellani

Writer: Gareth Farr

Director: Tess Walker


Should the pleas from one generation to “do better” be a spur for members of the following generation to strive for success or a millstone round their necks? Gareth Farr’s new one-act play poses that question. Biscuits for Breakfast is a deeply touching, yet defiantly unromantic relationship drams set in a modern day Britain in which Michelin-star restaurants stand alongside food banks.

When Paul (Ben Castle-Gibb) and Joanne (Boadicea Ricketts) first meet, their defensive walks are already built, constructed out of pride and stubbornness. What divides them is more apparent than what connects them. Persistently, Paul plays tapes of conversation between his younger self and his late father, a humble fisherman, who is urging him to make a better life for himself by developing his flair for cooking. When the play begins, Paul is a trainee hotel chef and Joanne is a cleaner in the same coastal hotel, without any clear goals in life. He conjures up delicious casseroles, while she can only offer pot noodles.

The drama cooks slowly at first. The edgy flirtation is a verbal tango and then Paul invites Joanne to his place to share a fish pie. The closure of the hotel means the loss of both jobs and of Joanne’s accommodation, so she moves in with Paul, thereby sealing the relationship just at the time when the couple’s lives are about to go into free fall.

Farr begins to paint a picture of a society in which ambitions are thwarted and ordinary working people are driven into poverty by limited job opportunities, low wages and soaring inflation. Cleverly, the writer achieves this without letting the play’s focus drift away from the central human story.

Director Tess Walker’s production on a traverse stage has energy, simplicity and intensity. The two actors are superb, conveying the shifting dynamics of their characters’ relationship through turbulent times. They make Paul and Joanne real people, in most ways unremarkable, but each of them is recognisable as “one of us”.

While Paul clings on to his father’s words and his dreams of writing a best-selling cookery book, Joanne becomes the pragmatist, realising that, if the pair can no longer feast on gourmet food, they must at least eat something. Everything about Farr’s play rings true and it should serve as a wake up call to anyone who is prone to taking comfortable lifestyles for granted..

Performance date: 11 May 2023

Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Writer: Somerset Maugham

Director: Tom Littler


They say that what goes around comes around, perhaps implying that the mistakes of one generation will, inevitably, be repeated by the next. At least Somerset Maugham seems to think so in The Circle, his 1921 play which, having all but disappeared for decades, now parades itself in front of us again.

The play is set just after the end of World War I among the wealthy upper classes in which the men pursue careers in politics for want of something else to do. Devotees of Downton Abbey should love it. In his first offering as the Orange Tree’s new Artistic Director, Tom Littler comes up with a well rounded, traditional revival which balances light comedy with melodrama deftly. However, the production faces two challenges: firstly that this is only a decent play when the comedy comes to the fore; and, secondly, that the comedy only works when one or more of the three most senior actors is on the stage.

Arnold (Peter Ashmore) and Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) have been married for three years and their union is threatened by mutual boredom and by Elizabeth’s infatuation with the ludicrously excitable visitor, Teddy (Chirag Benedict Lobo). In steps Arnold’s father, Clive (a sprightly Clive Francis), who had been abandoned by his wife, Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty (Jane Asher in regal mode), who also reappears after a 30-year absence in Italy. She bringing with her Hughie (Nicholas Le Provost looking thoroughly fed up), the man for whom she had left Clive. Robert Maskell hovers around as Arnold’s dutiful butler, reminding us that we are among the privileged classes.

Persistent bickering between Kitty and Hughie gives an instant clue that their three decades together may not have been entirely blissful and subsequent confessions confirm this. So, should history be allowed to repeat itself with Elizabeth’s imminent split from Arnold? Through it all, Maugham’s disdain for the institution of marriage is evident; this could have sent mild shock waves through audiences a century ago, but the play says very little of possible relevance to modern society and relationships.

Maugham’s wit may be sub-Wildean, but the impeccable timing and delivery of Asher, Francis and Le Provost take it up a level. Kitty’s shallow vanity is a marvel, while the twinkle in Clive’s eye tells us that his enforced return to bachelor status may not have been all that bad. The dithering Hughie, we are told, could have been Prime Minister had it not been for the scandal surrounding Kitty’s divorce; thinking of recent holders of that office, this does not seem so implausible.

Little in The Circle speaks to 21st Century lifestyles, but the play gives an amusing glimpse into what much of British theatre could have been like in the days before the kitchen sink revolution of the 1950s. As such, it is good inconsequential fun.

Performance date: 5 May 2923

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Sam Mendes


In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character marvels at The Player King and wonders how it can be possible for him to find the motive and the cue for passion. In this new play, Jack Thorn takes inspiration from the Bard to investigate the bridges built by actors between theatrical make-believe and real life.

The action takes place during the rehearsal period for a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and directed by Sir John Gielgud, whose own performance as the Prince of Denmark had been widely regarded as one of the greatest in history. Gielgud is also to appear himself, somewhat ironically, as the Ghost. The problem is that Gielgud’s Hamlet could never be Burton’s Hamlet, so where does the latter dig to find his motive, his cue and his passion?

It does not seem like too much of a stretch for Mark Gatiss to find the passion of the inimitable Gielgud, who is perhaps better remembered now for the film cameos of his later life than for his achievements in the classics. Gatiss captures his essence effortlessly, as witticisms and gaffes roll freely from his tongue, but he sulks like a slapped puppy when a very drunk Burton mocks his acting style and the insecurities of a lonely outsider come to the fore. This is particularly notable in a deeply touching scene in which Gielgud invites a male escort (Laurence Ubong Williams) to his hotel room without being sure of the reason why he has done so. Through it all Gatiss is simply magnificent.

Johnny Flynn gives a barnstorming performance as Burton, the son of a Welsh miner whose wild streak makes him the antithesis of Gielgud. His new bride Elizabeth Taylor, the biggest movie star on the planet at that time, has ambitions to hit the stage herself as Portia. She is barred from rehearsals, but wields influence on both leading actor and director from her luxury hotel suite. Tuppence Middleton is a delight, making Taylor smart, coarse and sexy; as the Hell-raising couple, she and Flynn light sparks off each other.

Part mischievous comedy and part docu-drama, Thorne’s play is uneven in places and it shows tendencies to wander away from its central themes. However, it provides a lush setting for many jewels and the writer’s passion for the art of theatre comes through clearly. Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius), Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Phoebe Horn as Linda Marsh (Ophelia), Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and David Tarkenter as Alfred Drake (Claudius) are among those who shine brightly, if briefly.

Fewer or shorter extracts from Shakespeare could help to resolve a few pacing issues in director Sam Mendes’ slick, but overlong production. Es Devlin’s design of an extremely grand rehearsal room fills the large Lyttelton Theatre stage, which then shrinks for scenes set in hotel rooms, all made distinctive by Jon Clark’s striking lighting designs.

At the final curtain, The Motive and the Cue leaves its mark as a funny and affectionate love letter from theatre to itself.

Performance date: 2 May 2023