Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Alkaline (Park Theatre)

Posted: July 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Stephanie Martin      Director: Sarah Meadows


My review can currentlybe seen at: and will appear here from 17 July.

Performance date: 13 July 2018

Writer: Martin McDonagh      Director: Michael Grandage


Black comedy is becoming an endangered species, threatened by modern forces of political correctness and thin-skinned sensitivity. So thank Heavens for Martin McDonagh. Earlier this year, over-sensitivity to facile accusations of racism could have cost him Oscars for his brilliant film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but the theatre seems to be a more understanding place for him and this revival of his early work is welcome indeed.

Set at the height of the Irish troubles, the play has none of the lyricism or heart of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. Its sole focus is the sheer brutality that underpins terrorist activities and its triumph is to turn such subject matter into, probably, the most hilarious production seen in London since McDonagh’s Hangmen three years ago. The Lieutenant of Inishmore feels like a prototype for the writer’s film In Bruges, in which he satirised the warped codes of morality of the criminal underworld; here, he gives the same treatment to paramilitary groups, specifically a splinter of the IRA, but the general overtones are clear.

Padraic (a swaggering Aiden Turner) is a renegade terrorist, self-appointed lieutenant in his own splinter army, who thinks the IRA too soft, but admits that they make better bombs than him. We first meet him as he is torturing a drug pusher for supplying children, a carnal sin to him when blowing the same children into oblivion with a home-made bomb would be all in a day’s work. The catalyst for the wanton carnage that is to follow is the death of Padraic’s beloved 15-year-old cat, Wee Tom, who he had left in the care of his un-beloved father Donny (Denis Conway). Donny’s incompetent attempts, along with his gormless gay sidekick Davey (Chris Walley), to cover up the circumstances of the cat’s demise take up the first act and Padraic’s bloody revenge the second.

The success of a comedy such as this depends on pace, tone and performances and Michael Grandage’s production gets them all spot-on. Charlie Murphy is particularly striking as Davey’s 16-year-old sister, Mairead, who is even more threatening than her idol and role model, Padraic. The putative lovers share the dream of a free and united Ireland even if there is no one left to live in it. In the closing scenes, the stage takes on the look of an abattoir, human corpses just outnumbering feline ones, and then an audacious final, ironic twist sends us away purring in delight.

Performance date 11 July 2018

Creator: Jennifer Marsden      Director and choreographer: Racky Plews

Perhaps it is inevitable that Game of Thrones:The Musical, will hit our stages one day, but, in the meantime, we have to make do with this fusion of classic rock anthems and a tale of heroism, bloodletting and tepid romance, set in a medieval kingdom where knights brandish swords, shields and electric guitars.

The creator of Knights of the Rose, Jennifer Marsden, is, we are told, a barrister, so we have to take it as read that there is no specific law against putting a show like this in front of an audience. Whether or not there should be becomes more debatable as the evening progresses. The House of the Rose (no specified colour) rules over the land, headed by King Aethelstone (Adam Pearce, booming like a miniature Brian Blessed) with his mild-mannered Queen Matilda (Rebecca Bainbridge) at his side. Their son, Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) is absent waging war while their daughter, Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill) loiters at home doing silly things in the company of other maidens, all wearing low-cut dresses, with long, straight hair draped over their shoulders. No cliché is left unused.

The knights return home in glory, hang around taverns waving their tankards and talking bawdily, woo their women and return to war. In short, Marsden’s plot is Much Ado About Nothing without the comedy, crossed with Henry IV pt1 without the weight of history. Sub-Shakespearean verse, much of it ludicrous, goes into the mix. The dramatic temperature rises when Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and the shady Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley) compete for Hannah’s hand and the lowly, un-knighted John (Ruben Van keer) acts as a kind of chorus, linking the story together.

There is fun to be had in guessing which familiar lyric daft lines of dialogue are leading into. When the audience guesses correctly, hilarity ensues, but most of the laughs in the show seem to come when Marsden would have least wanted them. The music is loud, amplified just enough to drown out the noise from the overworked air conditioner in this shabby old auditorium. Rock hits such as Holding Out For a Hero, Blaze of Glory, Addicted to Love, Total Eclipse of the Heart, and so on, follow each other in quick succession, but it all becomes too much and, when the company renders REM’s Everybody Hurts, everybody agrees. A dash of Mozart near the end comes as a welcome relief.

Director/choreographer Racky Plews has a decent track record with musicals and she does what she can with the material to hand, using Diego Pitarch’s split-level set imaginatively. Her staging of the fight scenes is exciting, made more so by Tim Deiling’s dramatic lighting effects. The singing is also strong, with Cowley standing out. and Mark Crossland’s seven-piece band does all that could be asked of it. Yes, the show has plusses, but their worth feels diminished when they are placed in a context as inept as this.

This cacophonous calamity is at its best when it wanders into “so bad it’s good” territory, but, sadly, it does not stay there long enough and the show drags out to become a very long evening indeed. At least its creator can find some consolation in having a day job to go back to.

Performance date: 5 July 2018

Photo: Mark Dawson

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Dusty (Theatre Royal, Bath)

Posted: July 5, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jonathan Harvey      Director: Maria F


A Girl Called Dusty still holds a  special place in my vinyl collection, even though I no longer have anything to play it on, so I can begin with a personal declaration of sentimental interest. This show was always going to bring tears to my eyes and, in the event, it brings plenty. There have been previous attempts to dramatise the life of La Springfield, pioneer for equal rights and LGBTQ icon, on stage, but the names involved here told us well in advance that this was always going to be different class.

Dusty, as seen here, is not very nice to know and she does not seem the ideal subject for a spectacular, feel good juke box musical. The surprise is that writer Jonathan Harvey and director Maria Friedman at first seem intent on making it just that, with big song and dance routines, choreographed by Tim Jackson. They even go as far as incorporating Springfield songs for other characters to sing, but they are only delaying the point as which the show has to reveal what it really is – a full-blown study of a superstar in melt-down, along lines similar to Pam Gems’ Piaf. Once the creators make their minds up that this is a tragic drama in which songs feature, not a musical at all, the show gains in confidence and, at times hits magnificent heights.

Harvey begins in late 1963 when Dusty had split from her brother’s group and was already riding high in the charts with I Only Want to Be With You. This leaves the writer with a back story to tell and he does so with some extremely clunky dialogue, but, once over this hurdle, his brand of camp humour works well to lighten the gloom of much of what follows. Esther Coles and Ella Kenion are hilarious as the star’s loyal right hand women and a sour-faced Roberta Taylor is a grim joy as her gin-swilling Mum. Rufus Hound is rather under-used as her frustrated manager.

At the centre of everything is Katherine Kingsley’s sensational Dusty. Her performance is not just about replicating the singing voice and the look, which she does superbly, it is about finding the heart of a petulant, self-centred, self destructive diva. Harvey offers excuses for her behaviour with passing references to a troubled childhood, but still, sympathy for her is hard to find. Seen as a controlling perfectionist and unreliable performer at the peak of her fame, she foregoes the opportunities offered by British pantos and opts for seedy Los Angeles night clubs, her descent into alcoholism, drug addiction and self-harming accelerating rapidly. She turns down the opportunity to record Killing Me Softly and a frustrated Elton John hands over Don’t Go Breaking My Heart to Kiki Dee (played as rather drab by Alex Bowen). Her love life is represented here by Lois (a moving performance by Joanna Francis), a backing singer who sacrifices her own career for Dusty and receives neglect in return.

Tom Pye’s simple but readily adaptable set designs and his bright period costumes work well. Credit too for Carole Hancock for hair and wigs. The stirring finale comes with You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, which is presented as the high point of Dusty’s career and it really wasn’t. Nonetheless, Kingsley brings the house down with it. The show goes on a short tour after here, with a West End run not yet announced. Hopefully, Harvey and Friedman will work on fixing the few remaining problems by the time it hits town and help Kingsley to get all the accolades that she deserves.

Performance date: 4 July 2018

Jellyfish (Bush Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Ben Weatherill      Director: Tim Hoare


How do perceived misfits find their place in our society? Ben Weatherill’s gentle comedy looks bravely into sensitive issues by challenging preconceptions and prejudices, while serving up a fair number of good laughs in the process.

Sarah Gordy gives a remarkably confident and mature performance as Kelly, a 27-year-old woman who has Down’s Syndrome. Kelly’s life turns around when she befriends Neil, who is a few years older and “normal”. She sees him as a friend and possible lover, but her mother, Agnes, sees him as a predator with sinister intent and wider society sees him as weird. In Tim Hoare’s carefully paced production, the play uses subtle humour to explore how the friendship could develop into co-habitation and parenthood, with relationship ups and down along the way.

Many of the scenes take place on a chilly Skegness beach, Amy Jane Cook’s set design including plentiful sand, a boardwalk and suggestions of amusement arcades and ice cream vendors. Agnes and Kelly have walked this beach every day for 15 years, their bond firmly sealed until the arrival of Neil. As the protective mother, Penny Laden is gritty and down-to-Earth, but she displays the weariness brought on by what feels to her like a lifetime of caring. Agnes speaks movingly of what it means to be a carer, in terms of the everyday practicalities, and she fears with good reason what could happen if she lets Kelly go.

At times when the the writing becomes too earnest and laden with worthiness, the play tends to be a little stodgy, but Weatherill tempers this by tapping into a rich vein of dark comedy, beginning with the arrival of Dominic, a young man with Asperger Syndrome, who is Agnes’ chosen suitor for Kelly. She has found him on Tinder. Nicky Priest’s deadpan style is perfect for Dominic, whose literal interpretations (“I’m not blind” he replies at the suggestion that he is on a blind date) and unintended sarcasm give the play its funniest moments. “We all deserve to be as miserable as each other” he philosophises, before moving on to revise for his forthcoming appearance on Mastermind, with the specialist subject of Kylie Minogue.

If the play has a shortcoming, it is that it does not tell us enough about Neil. Weatherill’s failure to flesh out the character leaves Ian Bonar with little option but to play him as kindly but dull and it becomes very difficult for him and Gordy to make the romance between Neil and Kelly believable. However, we have no problems with believing in the underlying warmth of the adversarial mother/daughter relationship which lies at the heart of the play.

Weatherill poses more questions than he offers answers, but, commendably, he does not go for any soft options. If nothing else, Jellyfish betrays its title by reminding us that people with learning disabilities are not spineless and they don’t sting.

Performance date: 29 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Blanche McIntyre


It may seem ironic that the Globe should launch its new production of The Winter’s Tale on one of the hottest evenings of the year, but anachronisms are rife in this, Shakespeare’s split personality play.

In temperatures that help the banks of the Thames to pass for Sicily, the tale unfolds. King Leontes suspects his heavily pregnant Queen, Hermione, of infidelity with Polixenes (Oliver Ryan), visiting King of Bohemia, and his uncontrollable jealousy leads him to a path of destruction. The play, believed to be one of Shakespeare’s later works, begins as a tragedy and then, suddenly, it isn’t. There is a sense that the Bard stopped halfway through writing it and told himself that he had done Othello already and needed to move in a different direction, towards reconciliation and forgiveness, in the final two acts.

Finding the range to make the transition from raging tyrant to kindly patriarch, it is the strength of Will Keen’s performance as Leontes that binds Blanche McIntyre’s free-flowing production together. He gives us a study of the loneliness that comes with power, pacing around agitatedly in self-torment.  The large pillars in James Perkins’ palatial stage design give him a place to skulk behind as his irrational fears fester and then they isolate him from the voices of reason in his court once he has embarked on his destructive course. After time has elapsed, Keen reappears, his voice and demeanour now those of a broken man, stripped of all traces of regality and seeking redemption where he once sought revenge.

Priyanga Burford’s Hermione is no whimpering victim. She is unusually forceful, a natural society hostess who suggests that she sees herself as her King’s equal. In this version of the play, Leontes’ jealousy could be caused just as much by her eclipsing him as by the possibility of her betraying him. Sirine Saba makes a fiery, but warm-hearted Paulina, Hermione’s loyal protector.

16 years elapse between the end of Act III and the beginning of Act IV and and the play takes its time to awaken from what could have been a long sleep. McIntyre throws colourful, high-spirited comedy at scenes in rural Bohemia and, aided by excellent work from Annette Badland as the Old Shepherd and Jordan Metcalfe as his/her son, she just about pulls the play through its sticky patch. Not quite a tragedy, not quite a comedy, The Winter’s Tale turns into a sweet romance, when Perdita (Norah Lopez-Holden) the daughter that Leontes has never seen, falls for Florizel (Luke MacGregor), the lost son of Polixenes.

As the play draws to its close, the challenge facing McIntyre is to make the preposterous first plausible and then moving. She shows a delicate touch, sealing a revival which, if not exactly seasonal, is certainly assured.

Performance date: 27 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Kiss Me, Kate (London Coliseum)

Posted: June 21, 2018 in Theatre

Music and lyrics: Cole Porter      Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack      Director: Jo Davies


Is it possible that what can no longer be spoken can still be sung? The Taming of the Shrew, once one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is now rarely seen in our theatres, seemingly swept away on a tide of political correctness. On the other hand, Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 musical based upon the same play, remains a perennial favourite, revived in various forms at regular intervals.

The show made its West End debut in 1951 at this same theatre, now the home of English National Opera. Opera North’s revival first appeared in Leeds in 2015 and, after touring the United Kingdom, it now arrives in London for the first time.

The book by Bella and Samuel Spewick is constructed wittily, following a theatre company as it performs a production of …Shrew in Baltimore prior to Broadway. Actor/manager Fred Graham (Quirijn de Lang) and leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie Corley) are celebrating the first anniversary of their divorce and their real-life clashes are mirrored by the warfare between their characters in the play, Petruchio and Kate. As long as 70 years ago, the writers could have realised that Shakespeare’s proposition that all it takes to tame a difficult woman is a good spanking needed toning down and, by veiling it in mockery, they just about get away with it.

Even so, the eventual acceptance of subservience by both Kate and Liili draws hisses of disapproval from a 2018 audience, notwithstanding the conclusions being made more palatable by  Dutch baritone de Lang’s lack of real authority as either Petruchio or Fred. Similarly, Corley always seem to struggle to make her characters sufficiently shrewish to need too much taming. Shakespeare’s Bianca is played by flirty starlet Lois Lane (a zestful Zoë Rainey) whose less than super man, Bill Calhoun (a jauntily tap dancing Alan Burkitt) accumulates gambling debts between performances as Lucentio.

Most of Porter’s songs are timeless classics, although not all of them connect with the book as well as perhaps they should. The cheesy Wunderbar feels as if it was thrown in as an afterthought and it is a mystery what Too Darn Hot has to do with this show. However, it gives us a darn good second act opener in which Will Tuckett’s choreography shines. Some songs suit operatic voices better than others. Corley sings So In Love perfectly, but her sweet soprano tones drain all the venom out of I Hate Men.

When an opera company takes on a work created for musical theatre, it can be expected that what is gained in musicality may come at the expense of theatricality. Here the Opera North Orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, and the Opera North Chorus recreate the sounds of Broadway gloriously. Given the luxury of a huge company of singers and dancers, director Jo Davies’ production often looks unusually over-crowded, more typical of a Verdi opera than a Porter musical. She finds flashes of comic invention without aver nearing the consistent sparkle of Trevor Nunn’s 2012 revival at Chichester and then the Old Vic. As was the style in the 1940s, long gaps occur between musical numbers and these sections need many more injections of energy than they get here.

Kiss Me, Kate is a show that nearly always gets “stolen” near the end when the two mobsters chasing Bill’s debts tell us Brush Up Your Shakespeare. This version proves to be no exception as John Savournin and Joseph Shovelton nail the number with aplomb. It rounds off a mixed evening which is musically wunderbar, but slightly under the bar in some other respects. 

Performance date: 20 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: