Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Ben Brown

Directors: Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley

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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

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

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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

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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.

Blithe Spirit (Harold Pinter Theatre)

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

Writer: Noël Coward

Director: Richard Eyre

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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

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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

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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

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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

Cinderella (Gillian Lynne Theatre)

Posted: August 26, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Composer: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Book: Emerald Fennell

Lyrics: David Zippel

Director: Laurence Connor

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Once upon a time Andrew Lloyd Webber would conjure up hit musicals from Argentine politics, feline poems and steam engines. Now, following in the footsteps of Rossini, Massenet, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and many others on stage and screen, he offers his take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella. It would seem that the composer’s days of thinking outside the box may be over.

Happily, the basic story has seemingly infinite scope for variations and the key to making any new version interesting lies with the twists in the tale. The news that this show’s book is the work of Emerald Fennell,  recent Oscar winner for the screenplay of Promising Young Woman, is a more than promising start. If Stephen Sondheim’sInto the Woods could opt for a not so charming Prince, then why not have a “bad” Cinders at the heart of Fennell’s version? It is a twist that pays dividends over and over, as the delightful Carrie Hope Fletcher puts a mischievous twinkle into the title character’s eyes and a spring into her naughty step.

The twists don’t stop with a bad heroine. Shockingly, Prince Charming is dead before the show starts and then…well no more spoilers. The setting is Belleville, somewhere in the region of France, at some time around the 18th Century. A prank by Cinderella has led to the town losing its appeal and its cash, so the Queen decrees that the only way to revive fortunes will be a royal wedding. The new heir is the wimpish Prince Sebastian, who also happens to be the only friend in the world of the put-upon, bedraggled serving girl Cinderella, and he must find a suitable bride at a hastily organised ball.

Clear messages about anti-bullying, body image and female empowerment are planted throughout the show without ever weighing things down. Fennell’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics merge together seamlessly, setting a tone that is irreverent and spiky but still unapologetically romantic. Fresh, modern and preserving the full flavour of the traditional fairy tale, this is a show with appeal for all age groups.

As Sebastian, relative newcomer Ivano Turco is outstanding, nailing the glorious showstopper Only You, Lonely You in the first act and disco dancing like John Travolta in the second. Rebecca Trehearn, looking like Marie Antoinette, plays the Queen as a tart made good. Both she and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s uncaring stepmother borrow from pantomime with their over-the-top villainesses and their duet, I Know You, is an absolute hoot. Gloria Onitiri also contributes a wicked cameo as the Godmother, in modern terms a sort of make-over consultant for Cinders.

Directing a company of over 30,  Laurence Connor stages the show in slick and spectacular style. The whole of the stalls revolves for the ball, repeating a trick seen in this same theatre for the original production of Cats. Gabriella Tylesova’s period costumes and fast changing sets are breathtaking and JoAnn M Hunter’s exuberant choreography brings in exciting modern touches.

Plaudits go to all involved, but it is Lloyd Webber’s name that goes above the title and this emphatic return to form must be seen as a personal triumph for him. Blending the expected ravishing melodies with reminders of his rock ’n’ roll roots, this is perhaps the composer’s most varied and fully-rounded score since Phantom. The show may not live happily ever after, but it should stick around for a year or two at very least.

Performance date: 25 August 2021

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Rita Kalnejais

Director: Chirolles Khalil

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Two young people hide in a loft while an authoritarian regime controls the streets outside and a war rages all around. Rita Kalnejais’ play, first performed in 2017, is set in 1944, during the final days of the German occupation of France, but Kabul in 2021 keeps springing to mind. Contrasting the intimacy of human relationships with the epic nature of world history, the writer makes it clear that the title which she has given to the play is rich with irony.

Elodie is a French teenager, prone to bouts of epilepsy, but romantic and optimistic. She lives in Chartres, south-west of Paris, and while swimming at a lake, she meets Otto, a German soldier of similar age. He boasts of having been part of a firing squad and shapes his actions in accordance with “what Mister Hitler would do”. His beautiful future involves the formation of a pure Aryan race and he believes that his departure to take part in the inevitable conquest of England is imminent. He is unaware that the Normandy landings have already taken place.

Freddie Wise’s Otto is a naive, sensitive youth, contradicting the horrific catalogue of beliefs and deeds recounted in the play. We are always asked to pity Otto more than despise him and, seen here, the character demonstrates the ease with which ordinary people can be indoctrinated with evil. Elodie, played with wide-eyed innocence by Katie Eldred, is excited at setting off on a new adventure and she loves Otto, blind to what he tells her about himself. Taunting each other and having pillow fights, we see a couple of children on the cusp of sexual awakening and on the threshold of encountering the harsh realities of life.

Kalnejais’ 70-minute one-act play is a coming of age tale with many bitter twists. Some of the writing is too heavily laden with obvious symbolism, but there is an overriding sense of the powerlessness of individuals to live their private lives closeted from cataclysmic events unfolding in the wider world. Director Chirolles Khalil’s production is at its best in quiet scenes of tenderness between the teens, faring less well when moments of high drama are over emphasised.

Performed with great confidence throughout by Eldred and Wise, This Beautiful Future reminds us that the grand sweep of history hides many small, human stories and that the future rarely includes learning lessons from the past.

Performance date: 20 August 2021

Constellations (Vaudeville Theatre)

Posted: August 13, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Michael Longhurst

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Hot on the heels of the announcement that an all-male couple will be competing on Strictly Comes Dancing, comes an all-male pairing in Nick Payne’s stellar romance Constellations. It’s 2021, so, hopefully, the reaction to both items of news will be “so what?”, leaving us to get on with enjoying the performances and seeing what the judges make of them.

Michael Longhurst, now Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, directed the world premiere production of Payne’s play at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, later transferring it to the West End and Broadway. The play, a two-hander, is being revived by Longhurst in four versions, of which this is one, with diverse pairs of actors taking on the roles, pointing to the universality of the writer’s themes.

Beekeeper Rodney and quantum cosmologist Manuel (Marianne in other versions) meet at a barbecue, then at a ballroom dancing class, forming an on/off relationship. This means both on and off, because Payne deploys the trick of repeating short scenes over and over to produce different resolutions, thereby answering the “what if?” question. This stuttering progression plays out something like Love Story meets Groundhog Day, supporting Manuel’s theory that everything in the cosmos has pre-determined and varying outcomes. Happily, the scientific gobbledygook is short and sweet, as the writer is  concerned with speaking to the heart more than to the brain

Omari Douglas, fresh from success in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, plays Manuel as a vulnerable drama queen and Payne’s sharp, stinging dialogue suits his style perfectly. Russell Tovey’s “boring” Roland is the ideal foil for him and the actors’ timing of the quick fire comedy exchanges is impeccable. When the play is funny, this pair makes it very funny and, when it stops being funny, there appears a tender emotional bond  which is truly touching.

Running for barely 70 minutes, the play, already a modern classic, does not outstay its welcome. Longhurst’s production looks much the same as it did in 2012, with Tom Scutt’s set, consisting of a multitude of helium-filled balloons, illuminated by Lee Curran’s warm and glowing lighting design. Although the triumph of this version has more to do with chemistry than cosmology, Douglas and Tovey team up so naturally that it could have been written in the stars.

Performance date: 12 August 2019

Photo: Marc Brenner