Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Writer: David Greig      Director: Jessica Lazar


The great appeal of David Greig’s Outlying Islands stems from its unpredictability. Audiences are left always uncertain as to whether they are watching a slapstick comedy, a brittle romance or a suspense thriller as the writer skirts around dramatic conventions with canny skill.

The play received its London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 2002 and this revival by the Atticist theatre company is the first time that it has been seen in the capital since then. Atticist’s last venture, Steven Berkoff’s East, also at the King’s Head, would seem more obviously suited to outlying Islington, but Greig’s refreshingly different play, set on an island 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, is no less welcome. The writer pits the forces of nature against those of civilisation and, along an undulating path, he wrestles with sub-themes that range from conservation to sexual awakening, biological warfare to Laurel and Hardy.

In the Summer of 1939, two young ornithologists are despatched by “the ministry” in faraway London in to count and study the island’s bird population. Robert (Tom Machell), from Cambridge, is confident and assumes the role of leader. He also boasts of his prowess as a ladies’ man. John (Jack McMillan), from Edinburgh, is uncertain and priggish, bound by the rules of polite society even in this untamed environment. For much of the early part of the play, the pair resemble Stan and Ollie, emulating their comedy routines, but, as the play gets progressively darker, they begin to look more like Leopold and Loeb.

Director Jessica Lazar’s engrossing, strongly atmospheric production manages the play’s rapidly shifting moods seemingly effortlessly. The audience envelops Anna Lewis’s craggy set and, enhanced by David Doyle’s lighting design, a disused chapel with a dodgy door becomes a place of mystery, where the natural world and the supernatural one feel equally unnerving.

As Robert and John tuck into their meal of puffin stew, Greig asks big questions. The time is specific and the play acknowledges that the start of World War II is imminent, but modern day battles to save our planet from manmade destruction are brought to mind and the validity of the unnatural constrictions forced on us by society are challenged. The writing is punchy, humorous and, at times, lyrical. 

The island’s owner is the cantankerous Kirk (Ken Drury), whose sole interest lies in what money he can make from the government as a result of the ornithologists’ visit. His niece Ellen has seen Way Out West 37 times and the similarity between that film’s stars and the island’s new arrivals may make them more endearing to her. Rose Wardlaw completes a quartet of powerful performances, expressing suppressed emotions and leading us to suspect that Ellen’s outward naivety could be a mask for a much more worldly young woman. 

Predictably, a love triangle involving Ellen and the ornithologists emerges, but like most other things in this play, it is unconventional and underpinned by deeper significance. This is a long overdue revival, given a production that never loosens its grip.

Performance date: 15 January 2019

Photo: Clive Barda

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Anomaly (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: January 14, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Liv Warden      Director: Adam Small


“Post-Weinstein. Post-Spacey. Pre-Preston” reads the publicity for Liv Warden’s debut play, Anomaly, Philip Preston being the pivotal, albeit unseen, figure. However, in an hour-long drama that is sharp, sensitive and powered by topicality, the writer concerns herself less with Preston’s misdemeanours than with the impact on his three daughters. 

The oldest daughter, Piper (Natasha Cowley) lives in Los Angeles, running her father’s film production company. She has been seduced by Preston’s power and a desire to replicate it. Next oldest, Penny (Katherine Samuelson) is a new mother, living in London and an aspiring actor, enticed by the industry’s glitz and glamour and getting a helping hand by using her father’s name. The youngest is a freer spirit, Polly (a particularly engaging performance from newcomer Alice Handoll) who has countered abuse within her family by turning to abuse of substances and is now in rehab.

The women are seen together on the same stage for almost the entirety of the play, talking directly to the audience or responding remotely to their sisters or to pre-recorded voices. However they are never in the same room, the closest to communication between them coming with telephone calls and a three-way interview on a radio programme. 

Warden’s account of a show business world of instant fame and media prurience resonates, but it is her depictions of power and complicity that chill most. All three women had known for many years that their father was a serial adulterer and a violent abuser within their family, but they had remained silent. The play searches for their motives.

The non-appearance of the villain leaves a hole in the play, but his inclusion could have blurred its focus and it is doubtful if any actor could have made him more odious than his description. Possibly more damaging is the lack of the direct confrontations which could have provided much needed dramatic force. Adam Small’s production builds up tension effectively but the climax lacks impact and, intriguing though the play’s ideas are, it ends leaving us feeling slightly underfed.

Performance date: 10 January 2019

Photo: Headshot Toby

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Jamie Lloyd


Harold Pinter’s career as a writer encompassed an era of unprecedented social mobility in Britain. Sparked by the end of post-War austerity, new opportunities opened up for the once disadvantaged, London’s East End and West End began to merge and members of the working classes moved up society’s ladder. The sixth in Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season brings together two perceptive social satires which, perhaps, reflect on aspects of the playwright’s own life journey.

Party Time, first performed in 1991, is interpreted by director Lloyd in the form of a funeral. The characters, all dressed entirely in black, sit in a row facing the audience as solemn music plays and, seemingly, the arrival of a coffin is imminent. So this is a party? Well, yes and, as the eight revellers rise in groups to sip cocktails, nibble canapés and chatter inanely, we quickly realise what an absurd gathering this is.

Hosted by Gavin (Phil Davis), the partygoers are made up of male social climbers and power brokers, accompanied by sedentary women. Terry (John Simm) boasts of membership of an exclusive club and orders his wife never to ask “what’s happened to Jimmy?” Melissa (Celia Imrie) bemoans the fact that good swimming and tennis clubs are all gone. Society’s ascenders and descenders meet in a sort of bourgeois cocoon, oblivious to a world outside in which, we are told, there is significant disorder. We wonder who Jimmy could be and, when Lloyd presents the answer as a near-apocalyptic event, the very foundations of the wealth which funds parties like this are challenged.

Celebration (1999), Pinter’s final play is about upstarts and interjectors. Lambert (Ron Cook) and Julie (Tracy-Ann Oberman) are celebrating their wedding anniversary at London’s most expensive restaurant, along with Lambert’s brother Matt (Davis) and his wife Prue (Imrie) who is also Julie’s sister. At another table (although seen at extreme ends of the same table as the celebrators in this production) are Russell (Simm) and his tarty wife Suki (Katherine Kingsley). They are hoping to get a leg-up in business from the brothers whose occupations, we suspect, may not be entirely legitimate.

All six diners come from lowly origins and Pinter finds comedy in clashes between their coarseness and the expected refinement of a high class establishment. The writer sees a new social order in which money and good taste no longer match up, with the restaurant owners, Richard (Gary Kemp) and Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) striving to bridge the gap. Abraham Poppoola’s waiter, repeatedly interjecting with preposterous stories about his grandfather, steals many of the laughs. In the hands of a company of comedy actors as accomplished as this, Lloyd’s production could never have been less than highly entertaining.

The passage of time has softened the satire in Celebration. The nouveau riche have now become the established rich and the codes of good manners with which they once clashed have faded into the more distant past. Furthermore, the misogyny in both these plays should not figure in modern attitudes and, to some extent, their revivals feel a little like watching old Carry On films and laughing at how things once were. That said, with six laps of his Pinter marathon now successfully completed, the time is approaching when, deservedly, it will be Lloyd’s turn to celebrate.

Performance date: 5 January 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

“This is such a great social space..,it has such character to it, it’s the perfect place” enthuses Liv Warden as she surveys the bar of The Old Red Lion pub, in Islington, little more than a mile from London’s West End. There to meet her is The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates to chat about the new play, her first to be produced professionally which will be premiering in the small fringe theatre upstairs early in 2019.

The play is called Anomaly and its highly topical theme is the scandals that have engulfed show business following allegations made against film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017. However, Liv’s play is less concerned with abuse of power and the victims who have spurred the #MeToo movement, than with the impact on the family of an accused man. So what is the significance of the play’s title? “The idea that it’s a one-off is brought up in the play” Live explains, “the past experiences of the protagonist, the youngest daughter Polly…had with her father was referred to in her school report as like an anomaly, a one-off, when clearly as it transpires in the story, it’s not a one-off, it’s a pattern of behaviour that is played down rapidly by the people around the family.

“The family knows” she continues “but it’s always been brushed under the carpet and kind of healed and healed and healed until it comes to a blow”. The accused man is a film producer, “he is my version of not only Weinstein but also (others)”. This sounds like a typical casting couch scenario, which Liv confirms: “ Well yes, Philip Preston, who’s the main character, he’s not in the play, but he’s the father and he’s a version of all these (true life) men who have been accused of things, he’s accused in the play, but it’s not about him. It’s a female three-hander, it’s the three daughters and the impact on them”.

Obviously real events have influenced the play, but that is not where it began: “well originally it was about a woman who had a complex relationship with her family, notably her father…it was never about Hollywood or fame or anything like that” Liv explains, “and I didn’t know what to do with it and then the Harvey Weinstein case came out and I thought that this could really be quite interesting if we looked at how fame and sensationalism in the media could play a huge part in family dynamics, and how it completely blows everything to a different level”.

The sisters are aged 28, 26 and 24. “the oldest is one of the board members of (her father’s) company, she’s his protégé I guess; the middle one is more of a socialite and she’s taken on the famous role I guess of the three sisters and she has, arguably, used her name…she is pushed into doing interviews in the aftermath of this, she’s pushed into saying things that maybe she regrets saying about the situation, but she’s definitely the most vulnerable of the three” Completing the characters, Liv describes the youngest sister: “she’s been in an out of rehabilitation and therapy, but she’s definitely the most switched-on, she’s very, I find her very charismatic, she tells the truth and the others don’t necessarily do that; she is essentially not a narrator, but she pushes the story forward, addresses the audience directly and she kind of tells the truth about what it is being a Preston”.

Often Liv has begun with a one-woman show that she has written herself to perform herself , but things have taken a different route this time. “When Adam (Small), he’s the director, read it, he said these three woman are  so well-rounded and have their own story to tell that it would be a shame not to explore them fully and I totally agree now” she says with a smile of satisfaction; “I would say that these three women are different versions of myself…formidable…vulnerable…softer…the three never actually meet fully, all three are in separate places and they only ever talk to each other by phone or in a television interview and then, at the end, they come together in a theatrical way”.

So how did the play arrive at the Old Red Lion? “Through Adam” Liv replies, “he had a list of theatres that he would like to approach and the Old Red Lion was on top of the list; I met him through his girlfriend, I worked with (her) and she said…let’s give (the play) to him and he said that he was too busy to read it, but when he did he said that he would not let anyone else do this play; at the first meeting I had with him, he knew the play inside out…like he knew everything; being a newbie, I know that I’ll be in extremely good hands with him”. And at this venue? “Yes…what will be brilliant about the Old Red Lion is that it’s so intimate and a lot of this storyline is about tv – there are a lot of tv interviews and, on the tv, you see really like visceral reactions to things and, in a huge theatre, that would get lost”. 

Liv started out training as an actor before turning to writing. She comments “it was almost like a therapy for me…getting down with a piece of paper, I didn’t expect it to be anything and then I sent something off to the Soho Writers’ Lab in 2015 and it was accepted immediately and I thought that maybe there’s something to this and maybe I should try a bit harder”. She did and “from there it kind of snowballed, I did a few more courses I went to the National who helped me to write this one, I went to the Arcola as well and I really enjoyed writing it in theatres, it was more like a collaborative experience”.

Accepting that this play has only female character, Liv does not see herself as exclusively a writer about feminine issues; “looking back now, I wrote about men and men’s stories…maybe because I was a bit scared that I couldn’t write an actual well-rounded female character, because I’m a woman and I should be able to do that; this for me has completely put that to bed…I really am fond of each of these three characters, I feel so connected to them and, yesterday, when we were casting it, I really watched it come alive and I thought wow!”.

In the future, Liv plans more plays “that’s definitely what I have a passion for… I’ve written short films before and I have really enjoyed it but I want to get to know London fringe theatres better…I find that these places are completely different from the West End, they have a sense of community that the West End doesn’t really have…It’s lovely that you can buy a ticket for around £17 and you can come and see a piece of theatre”. It is looking as if Liv is set to become a siginificant addition to the growing number of strong female voices in theatre.

Photo of Liv Warden and Adam Small by Toby Lee (c)

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

It is quite a distance from the East End of London to the remote islands of the Hebrides, but director Jessica Lazar and her Atticist theatre company are making exactly that journey. Last year they staged Steven Berkoff’s East at London’s King’s Head Theatre and they are now working on a revival, at the same theatre, of Outlying Islands by Scottish playwright David Greig, who is currently Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Breaking the journey, Jessica crossed paths with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at London’s National Theatre.

Atticist began life on a high with Saki, which won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award at the 2015 Fringe Festival and later transferred to Off-Broadway. “Atticist is a group of like-minded individuals who came together for the explicit purpose of putting on Saki” Jessica explains, continuing: “initially there were absolutely no plans to turn it into a company with a long-term artistic development…there was no grand plan at the start…we found just how well we worked together” 

Atticist became an associate company of the King’s Head as a result of the reactions to East, which was found to be drawing in new audiences. On the surface, the company’s work seems very diverse, but Jessica counters that impression, explaining: “we have a sense of style…we have a very strong sense of the company’s stylistic identity; what really appeals to us…is magical realism in the theatre…grabbing something and attacking a subject… perhaps through a prism that is not entirely naturalistic – ensemble based (theatre) that is often quite highly physical, but using whatever story-telling method we believe is most appropriate for the particular story we are trying to tell and being open; we started with new writing and then moved to two revivals, but we’ve been working on further new writing that we’re hoping to put on in 2019; it takes a long time to make something good”.

Outlying Islands looks set to stretch the company’s philosophy further than before, particularly bearing in the mind the constraints imposed by a small pub theatre.  “One of the early stage directions is the sound of a thousand seabirds and the sheer noise of the place is very important toning; the design is…quite heavily based on the sketches of Norman Ackroyd”.

The play premiered in 2002 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre in London. It tells the story of two ornithologists, one from Cambridge and the other from Edinburgh, spending three months in the Summer of 1939 on a Hebridean island to conduct a bird count. When there, they meet with the island lease-holder and his young niece. So what drew Atticist to the play? “ It’s the favourite play of someone in the company” Jessica explains, adding “I really like David Greig as a playwright, I think he’s an extraordinary writer…very, very witty. I admire the fact that he can see the world in a grain of sand, I think he’s a brilliant” 

Praise indeed, but Jessica has yet to meet the writer face-to-face. “We’ve spoken, but never met and it was a very inspiring conversation” she says “but it also filled me with confidence that we were going on a track that would work; he said that he was no longer the playwright who wrote this play…he doesn’t want to tell us anything that we would feel bound by…he’s interested in seeing what we make of it”.

Four characters on an island sounds a little like Agatha Christie and Jessica admits that not everyone makes it out alive. So would she class the play as a thriller? “Thriller, love triangle, very, very funny” she replies; it ranges from very subtle dry humour to frankly slapstick, a lot of surrealism…it all straddles two worlds and it moves from one world to another world, from something that begins with slapstick and ends with this wild passionate unexpected epic. Greig’s got an amazing talent for finding the epic in the every day and the epic in the small situations, but he’s never afraid of the comedy in the grand scheme … within the tragedy of life”.

The comedy and the drama in the play emerge from friction between the characters. Jessica explains: “very quickly everybody begins to be changed or drawn to something by the wildness and the isolation of the island; it’s absolutely mystical…while they’re there, they start to be drawn not only to the island but to each other, tensions crackle, boundaries start to come down, all of the rules that are set on the mainland begin to fade away and the possibility of a new society starts to bubble up in all its many different forms”. 

Jessica believes that the play also touches upon conservation issues that are relevant to the modern world. “It has very powerful resonances for ecological issues today…occasionally those are explicit, but really it’s more about personal responses to ideas of what constitutes value, I suppose what the world owes us and what we owe the world”. She continues: “There is a brilliant line in it when two of the characters have an argument about the phrase ‘supporting life’…so one of the ornithologists contends that the island is supporting life because it has a pristine habitat for a particular bird and it’s untouched… one of the other character counters that supporting life would be selling the island to buy a herring drifter and live in relative comfort when otherwise life is extremely difficult and they are picking a living from any way they can”.

There are no u-boats circling the island just yet, but Jessica notes  “an awareness of war that may or may not be coming”. Explaining the play further, she says: “it’s a mystery, but the mystery is resolved very quickly and it becomes something else…(the characters) discover something, conflicts emerge out of that discovery, dramatic, extraordinary conflicts, and, at that point, something extremely serious happens…and then it’s almost as if the handbrake comes off…everybody is completely liberated and responds in a way that we would never expect and the play passes over into questions that are no longer about conservation and equality and patriotism (becoming) about the oppression and liberation of sexuality and what it might mean for the individual and what society ought to look like”. 

It all seems like a lot of themes to bring out with just 4 (or maybe 5?) characters. “This is why Greig is a genius” Jessica enthuses “because he does…it’s a very hard play to summarise in a sentence…it takes you from something that might look in the first five minutes as a period drama to something that is spectacularly strange, almost mythic, metaphysical, passionate, epic by the near end, passing though mystery and thriller and love story on the way”.

Jessica divides her time between Atticist and working as a freelance director. In 2018, she has directed For Reasons that Remain Unclear at the King’s Head and two productions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Also, she is currently assisting Maggie Norris at The Big House, a theatre charity that works with recent care leavers who are at very high risk of social exclusion; they get “four weeks of rehearsal, four weeks of performance, (they) are held to an incredibly high standard and all the production team are professionals”. On a wider front, she believes that “British theatre is in a pretty good place in terms of what is being created, but, in terms of funding, maybe not, because it’s a struggle”. Funding issues aside, Jessica’s enthusiasm is infectious and a conversation with her leaves a firm impression that she and others like her will leave the future of our theatre in safe hands.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

2018 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 29, 2018 in Theatre

2017 was a vintage year and 2018 was hardly a disappointing follow-up, posing the difficult problem of what to leave out of any list of favourites. Two great musicals opened towards the end of 2017 and, as I saw them early in 2018, they are up for consideration here. I continued with my policy of avoiding regularly performed classics, including many Shakespeares, although I relented for Antony and Cleopatra (National) and Romeo and Juliet (RCS), both of which were outstanding, and a special mention has to be made for the National Theatre’s extraordinary Pericles, which only ran for three performances for logistical reasons, but which gave me my most magical theatre evening of the year.

It was another great year for the National, particularly in the Dorfman, but the Almeida remained London’s most exciting theatre, with a string of innovative and imaginative productions. The following represent my personal favourites, with no suggestions that they were the best (or worst() of the year.



1. The Inheritance (Young Vic/Noel Coward) Close to seven hours, split over two plays, this could well have been judged as a pale imitation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but I saw it early in the year and it has matured in my mind like a good wine and I now think that it could be even better than its illustrious predecessor.

2. Summer and Smoke (Almeida/Duke of York’s) Seeing a wonderful new play is exciting enough, but discovering an almost forgotten masterpiece equals it. Tennessee Williams’ haunting account of a love affair that can never be fulfilled deserves to stand alongside his greatest works and this production does it full justice.

3. Company (Gielgud)  Sondheim reinvented by Marianne Elliot with gender switches that work so perfectly that we question how the show could ever have been done any other way.

4. The Lehman Trilogy (National) American history explored and the American dream exploded in Sam Mendes’ exquisitely paced production of a new play by Stefano Massini/Ben Power.

5. John (National) Annie Baker’s follow-up to The Flick is no less dazzling, moving at a snail’s pace, but digging deep into the human psyche.

6. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo) That rare thing – a British musical that deserves to have everybody talking about it.

7. The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse) A beautifully low-key revival of Peter Gill’s reminiscences of his own involvement in the York Mystery plays and a mismatched love affair with a local farmer.

8. Caroline or Change (Hampstead/Playhouse) Sharon D Clarke unforgettable in Tony Kushner’s musical about racial inequality in America’s Deep South.

9. Ulster American (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh) David Ireland’s blistering comedy, exposing our hidden prejudices and blowing apart many of the rules of political correctness.

10. Hamilton (Victoria Palace) Lin Manuel Miranda’s eagerly-anticipated Broadway musical is slick, ground-breaking and highly entertaining, but perhaps not quite as great as some would have us think.



Female lead in a play – Patsy Ferran (Summer and Smoke)

Female supporting in a play – Frances Barber (An Ideal Husband)

Male lead in a play – Kyle Soller (The Inheritance)

Male supporting in a play – Freddie Fox (An Ideal Husband)

Female lead in a musical – Rosalie Craig (Company)

Female supporting in a musical – Patty Lupone (Company)

Male lead in a musical – John McCrea (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie)

Male supporting in a musical – Jonathan Bailey (Company)

Ensemble in a play – The Inheritance

Ensemble in a musical – Company



New play – The Inheritance (writer: Matthew Lopez)

New Musical – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (book & lyrics: Tom MacRae, music: Dan Gillespie Sells)

Director (play) – Stephen Daldry (The Inheritance)

Director (musical) – Marianne Elliot (Company)



1. Knights of the Rose (Arts) A no-brainer for the top spot, but memories of the howls of laughter in all the wrong places on press night bring some compensation.

2. Nina’s Got News (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh) A debut play by comedian Frank Skinner and, on this evidence, he needs to stick to the day job.

3. The Messiah (The Other Palace) Desperately overlong and desperately unfunny Christmas “comedy”.

The Messiah (The Other Palace)

Posted: December 12, 2018 in Theatre

Writer and director: Patrick Barlow


A recording of Ernest Gold’s theme from the film Exodus features prominently before the lights dim for the beginning of Patrick Barlow’s production of his own play The Messiah. Perhaps this should be taken as a subliminal cue to audiences to heed the music’s title and make their ways out before discovering for themselves just how unfunny what is to follow turns out to be.

40 years ago, the highlight of festive television would have been The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special and the highlight of that show would have been the play what Ernie wrote. In essence, here we have such a play, performed by two comedy actors and complete with a guest singing star, but what might have been a 10-minute sketch is put on a rack and stretched out painfully to two hours, including an interval.

The Morecambe figure is Ronald Breame (John Marquez), a mischievous  clown, dressed in a suit several sizes too small. He acts most of the roles in a Nativity play that is written and produced by the pompous and deluded Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis), dressed like a retired army officer in a brass-buttoned blazer. It took decades for Morecambe and Wise to make their on-screen characters fully-rounded and to perfect their synchronised comic timing, so it comes as no surprise that, in comparison, Marquez and Dennis look like beginners. They try very hard to make the comedy in Barlow’s script work, but they are defeated repeatedly.

The “guest star” is Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Lesley Garrett), who sings arias ranging from Handel to Puccini, without musical accompaniment. Her rendition of Silent Night is exquisite. Designer Francis O’Connor gives the show the correct feel of an incompetent village hall Nativity play, with marble columns in front of a blue curtain that is speckled with gold stars. When the back curtain opens, it reveals a wobbly, cardboard Bethlehem.The design is vaguely Roman, vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely 2,000 years ago and vaguely cheap.

Barlow scored a big hit with his adaptation of The 39 Steps, but this show is more than “just a short tube ride from London’s glittering West End”, as the writer describes The Other Palace. It is particularly disappointing that Barlow relies so heavily on double entendres, Malapropisms and tired, predictable old gags. The programme suggests “Virgin on the Ridiculous” as an alternative title and this would have summed up the level of the humour well.

Even in the season of good will to all, it is difficult to find much good to say about The Messiah. The main consolation is Garrett. She is cast to play what we assume to be a third rate soprano, but, thankfully, this proves to be outside her range. She climaxes with a rousing Hallelujah Chorus and the show ends there. Hallelujah indeed.

Performance date: 11 December 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: