Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Janet Suzman


The abomination that was Apartheid has been consigned to the history books, but the voice of South African playwright Athol Fugard lives on. A Lesson from Aloes, which was first staged in 1978 and received its UK premiere at the National Theatre in 1984, has been robbed of some of its urgency by the passage of time, but its themes, relating to all those living under authoritarian regimes across the world today remain loud and clear.

Piet and Gladys are an ageing Afrikaner couple, liberal supporters of political reform in their country. It is the Autumn of 1963 and strong winds are heard howling around their small suburban house in Port Elizabeth, named, perhaps ironically, Xanadu. Piet, a former farm owner,  has a passion for poetry and an obsession with aloes, resilient plants that thrive in arid conditions. Gladys, who has returned home after treatment for a breakdown, cherishes her private diaries even though her isolated lifestyle gives her little to record in them. The couple are preparing for the arrival of old friend Steve, a mixed race activist, who has recently served six months in prison for defying a banning order. 

Dawid Minnaar gives Piet a quiet dignity; he is a man rooted in his homeland as securely as his aloes and resisting the political system only passively. Janine Urfane’s moving performance brings out Gladys’ mental fragility, showing her to be a broken woman, living on without any real purpose. “I am a human being, not a prickly pear” she protests to Piet, who interacts with her as if he is walking on eggshells. Her torment had been started when the authorities had seized her diaries and violated her privacy.

The arrival of Steve (David Rubin) at the beginning of the play’s second act provides the catalyst for the release of the tensions that have been bubbling under the surface. He is about to embark, with his large family, on a boat to England to find a better life. Gladys wishes that she and Piet could take a similar route to escape the clutches of a South African society that is dominated by repression and suspicions of betrayal. However, Piet remains rooted and Steve taunts him with “If I had a white skin, I’d also find lots of reasons for not leaving this country”.

As director, South African born actor Janet Suzman, delivers a tortured political drama, made more atmospheric by the warm glow of Mannie Manim’s lighting and Rachael Murray’s sound effects. Norman Coates’ set design makes ingenious us of the confined space, encompassing an outside patio area and Gladys’ bedroom retreat. 

In this play, Fugard concerns himself less with the direct horrors of Apartheid than with the wider effects of authoritarianism, the tentacles of which stretch across society. He seems to be talking to all those who support change, but resist direct involvement. It is this emphasis which gives the play much of its ongoing relevance and it is the strength of the characters which gives force to its messages.

Performance date: 5 March 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Story writers: Henry Devas and Jesse Velik      Director: Jez Pike


There are few things sadder than a tragic clown and, in Henry Devas’ new play, Matt is very sad indeed. “Fat, ugly, awful breath, terrible comedian” he is told, making it little wonder that he has just come close to jumping off Tower Bridge. However, he is saved for this world for a little longer and things rapidly get much worse for him.

Danny Kirrane’s Matt strikes an affective balance between comedy and pathos. The jokes are dreadful, but the actor makes clear the extent of the chronic depression from which Matt is suffering, thereby signalling from the outset that the play may ultimately have a serious purpose. Pressured by relationship difficulties and the responsibilities of new fatherhood as much as by his inability to raise laughs, Matt finds himself holed up in a remote room with two menacing men. Tristabel (Tom Canton) is a controlling bully and Benzies (Daniel Portman) is a violent psychopath. Both seem to be pushing him towards making that final jump.

All the action takes place in a tight corner of the Park’s square studio space, Elizabeth Wright’s design of a dingy room, with boarded up window and door, affirming the gloomy air of the writing. At the centre of the room is a ladder, ascending to “up”, whatever that may mean. The play takes the form of an absurdist comedy, short on explanations and overflowing with clumsy symbolism, but Devas never shows complete mastery of the genre and the first hour has the feel of a pilot for an edgy sitcom that Channel Four might have declined to commission.

Two further characters, Christopher and Chris, both played by Liam Smith, appear later, as the writer takes the play, firstly, further into the realms of absurdity and then back to the real world. Looked at from the perspective of the pathos in the closing scenes, Devas has written a meaningful, if confused, allegory that probes into the torment in the mind of a potential suicide victim and, with suicide rates among young men growing at an alarming rate, he earns respect for offering any insights.

Director Jez Pike gives the production an intensity that is sustained consistently throughout the two acts. However, there are many times when it feels that the play is not worthy of the actors’ commitment to their roles. Laddish jokes, macho posturing and relentless bullying make many scenes thoroughly unpleasant and very tough to watch. As a result, some in the audience could feel inclined to take a view opposite to the play’s title. 

Performance date: 1 March 2019

Photo: Chris Avis

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

And the Rest of Me Floats (Bush Theatre)

Posted: February 24, 2019 in Theatre

Devisors: Outbox Theatre      Director: Ben Buratta


One by one, seven people each brimming over with attitude, make their way from all corners of the theatre to a seat on the stage. They face the audience, staring with curiosity, as the audience stares back with at least equal curiosity. So begins And the Rest of Me Floats, Outbox theatre’s 75-minute revue, flamboyantly celebrating gender fluidity and everything caught up in its unstoppable whirlpool.

The production is directed by Ben Buratta, who founded Outbox Theatre in 2010 with a mission to “make queer theatre”, working with artists from the LGBTQ+ community to achieve that objective. The seven performers here represent different social groups along with diverse experiences and emotions. By the way, only non-binary pronouns are used in this review.

The red-carpeted stage suggests a cat walk and racks of clothes along both wings confirms that changes of costume will be plentiful. However, it is what goes on inside that counts a lot more here than what is worn outside, as the show sets out to challenge prejudices and preconceptions, always in non-aggressive ways. The show has a published script, which belies much of its anarchic feel and it is made up of sharp one-liners, short personal monologues and choreographed movement, interspersed with music that ranges in style from loud rock to gentle torch songs. 

When Emily Joh Miller, Josh Susan Enright and Michelle Tiwo reel off a list of countless commonly-asked questions, they are encapsulating the shortage of understanding that still exists in society and even within their own communities. When Tamir Amar Pettet learns their Bar Mitzvah prayer by repetition and then forgets it at the ceremony we see how established institutions persist in failing minorities and how minorities cannot avoid failing them. When Enright covers their manly physique in a slinky evening gown, quipping “tonight I can be Rihanna and I can be her rude boy. Both”, they could also be Freddie Mercury in the I Want to Break Free video, demonstrating that perhaps all the ideas on show are not so modern after all. 

Barry Fitzgerald, Elijah W Harris and Yasmin Zadeh make up the company of performers all of them in measures light-hearted, self-deprecating and committed. The show does not find any single stand-out moment, but, overall,  it is an invigorating piece of entertainment that promotes understanding and earns admiration.

Performance date: 22 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Harley Granville Barker      Director: Trevor Nunn


Harley Granville Barker was one of the leading lights of British theatre in the Edwardian era and works of his, such as The Voysey Inheritance and Waste, still appear regularly today. Therefore, it would seem highly unlikely that a play written by him in 1900 would have to wait until now to receive its World Premiere, but such is the case here.

Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life languished in the British Library for more than a century until Richard Nelson’s revised version was brought to the stage by director Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Bath and this is a slightly modified version of that production. Naomi Frederick plays the title character as a wavering free spirit. Three years after leaving her adulterous husband, Agnes still questions whether she values independence over security and she finds neither sympathy nor encouragement in the society of her age.

Agnes works as a painter, befriending Otto (Matthew Flynn), a fiery fellow artist. “I know only three male artists better than you” he tells Agnes, expecting her to take his misogynist condescension as a compliment. In a moment of self-doubt, Agnes sees herself as “an extra rib, dressed”. The play was written some two decades after Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, so themes of female liberation were not new to theatre in 1900, but Granville Barker seems to be continually reassuring himself, through his hesitant characters, that he is not being too bold.

A second suitor emerges in the form of naive young banker, Alex, who follows Agnes to the retreat which she has found with Otto in Normandy. Harry Lister Smith plays Alex as if he is a simpering boy, making it obvious that he would be the more malleable of the two rivals and giving Agnes a clear choice. Does she want to control Alex, or to be controlled by Otto? Perhaps Granville Barker is showing prescience in discussing gender role reversal, but he puts it into a contemporary context by bringing in Emmeline (Sally Scott), a prim and proper widow with a mischievous streak.

Running at around 90 minutes, plus an interval, the play gives an interesting insight into the formation of modern feminist ideas. After a tepid first act during which any form of dramatic tension proves elusive, Nunn’s production livens up after the interval and, towards the end, rather surprisingly, the director finds some comedy (hopefully intentional). Leaving aside its curiosity value, Agnes Colander… is no lost masterpiece; more it is a tentative work by a writer who was as uncertain about what the new century would bring as are his characters.

Performance date: 15 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Can-Can! (Union Theatre)

Posted: February 15, 2019 in Theatre

Adaptor and lyricist: Phil Willmott      Composers: Jacques Offenbach and his contemporaries      Director: Phil Setren


After Mythic and Hadestown London may have had enough of the Orpheus myth for now, so it is welcome news that this new musical entertainment borrows the overture, but not the plot, from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. It is the music most famously associated with the Can-Can, the dance that scandalised late 19th Century French society and, here,  it heralds the arrival of a touch of Parisian gaiety to the world under the railway tracks near Waterloo Station.

Colourful costumes, high kicks and frilly knickers feature strongly in the show, Adam Haigh’s choreography proving to be its highlight. There are also strong segments of classical ballet and ballroom, but, dancing aside, the rest is a mix of chuckles and cringes, not necessarily in equal measures. Creator Phil Willmott bases his plot very loosely on Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells, an affectionate comedy set in the world of theatre.

Christian (Damjan Mrackovich) is a toff, son of joyless banker Monsieur Bontoux (Willmott), who strongly disapproves of his dalliance with showgirl Jane (Kathy Peacock). Jane is part of the troupe at the Orpheus Theatre in Paris, along with the likes of La Goulue, a drag act (PK Taylor) and Pujol, a “fartiste” (Mark Garfield). Also hanging around are musician Offenbach, aka “Offy” (Sam Woods) and, clutching his sketchpad, an unusually tall Toulouse Lautrec (Jordan Nesbitt).

When Bontoux buys up the Orpheus and gets the troupe kicked out (“I was a tour-de-force and now I’m forced to tour” moans one of them), Christian becomes an actor on the London stage, parted from his love. A great aunt in the Bontoux family (Corinna Marlowe, who could have stepped straight out of an Oscar Wilde play) arrives to help, but it seems that only “Offy” can bring the pair back together, casting both in his new operetta (guess which one). 

The show has fair helpings of music by “Offy”, a bit of Lehar, but, mostly, the songs are standards from Victorian Music Hall. These are simple and familiar tunes, yet some seem to provide too big a challenge for a few singers in this company. The music is arranged by Richard Baker, with musical director Rosa Lennox on piano, accordion and clarinet and Marlowe on cello. 

Everything gets terribly confused. Characters with distinctly English traits are supposedly French and there is no consistency of style anywhere. Sometimes we see an operetta, then a string of Music Hall turns and, with a dastardly villain (Bontoux) and a flamboyant dame equivalent (La Goulue), the show becomes a pantomime.

Phil Setren’s production stutters when the dancing stops, often embarrassing when it sets out to be amusing and risible when it takes itself seriously. In summary, this is a poorly conceived patchwork of mismatching ideas. Many talented people are involved, but all of them can can and should should do better.

Performance date: 13 February 2019

This review was originally written for The reviews Hub:

The Price (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Arthur Miller      Director: Jonathan Church


Superficially, all of Arthur Miller’s great plays are deeply rooted in American culture and history, but their enduring appeal on this side of the Atlantic reflects the universality and timelessness of the writer’s human themes. Transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, Jonathan Church’s production of the 1968 play The Price is the first of two major Miller revivals opening in London this week and two more will follow in the coming months. Any living playwright would surely be envious.

Having been born in 1915, America’s Great Depression impacted significantly on Miller’s early life, as it has done on the lives of brothers Victor and Walter Franz, the play’s chief protagonists. Their father had been broken by the Depression and Victor had felt compelled to take care of him, giving up a promising career in science. The price that he has paid is 30 years as a uniformed police officer, a job that he hates. Walter had turned in the opposite direction, building a successful and lucrative career in medicine, but paying a price in terms of personal fulfilment. The estranged brothers are reunited at their father’s home, 16 years after his death, to sell off his possessions and raise cash that 50-year-old Victor needs for his impending retirement.

The tone is set perfectly by Simon Higlett’s design for the attic of the Franz family home. A harp that is never played sits in a corner, a Queen Anne-style chair and matching chaise longue take centre stage, surrounded by assorted clutter. We recognise this as a place from which the present has departed and the past lives on, the only thing missing seeming to be Miss Haversham. Miller is telling us that the past always hovers over us and that every decision taken in life bears a cost. He argues that laying the blame on others for our own actions is futile.

Brendan Coyle is superb as Victor, outwardly solid and upright, but always questioning the foundations for a code of honour that puts duty and self-sacrifice ahead of personal gain. There is bitterness in Sara Stewart’s Esther, Victor’s wife, as she pushes for a better life than a police officer can give her, perhaps needing to fund her drinking habit. Adrian Lukis’ Walter has an arrogant air, but we see the cracks in his veneer as the truth behind versions of past incidents is challenged. Walter would seem to be the obvious villain of the piece, but Miller never fully endorses this view, showing that life is always much more complex than first impressions show.

Much of the strength of Church’s vivid revival is drawn from the play’s masterful construction, Miller using a richly comic character to hold together his stern examination of family division, guilt and regret. Gregory Solomon is an 89-year-old Jewish furniture dealer who can put a price on anything. Apart from giving light relief exactly when it is needed, the character adds an ironic perspective to the emotionally-charged drama that is unfolding all around. David Suchet plays him to the hilt in a performance that, on its own, makes the ticket price good value.

Performance date: 11 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer and performer: Apphia Campbell      Directors: Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs


Born on 21 February 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, sixth child of a preacher man, was to become Nina Simone, internationally renowned soul singer and American Civil Rights activist. Her story is told here in Black is the Color of My Voice, a 70-minute monologue, written and performed by New Yorker Apphia Campbell. The play is followed at some performances by Soul Sessions, a 50-minute celebration of Simone’s music, which is ticketed separately. 

The small stage is furnished with just a single bed, a wooden table and chairs and a screen when Campbell emerges, looking waifish and vulnerable as Simone. The play is structured as a conversation with the singer’s late father, with whom she seeks a posthumous reconciliation. We hear of a child who trains to become a gifted concert pianist, incurring the wrath of her mother when, as a young adult, she turns to “the devil’s music”.

We feel that this is a woman in search of her own identity, whose life is driven by a deep-rooted love of music in all its forms. A telling moment comes when the young Eunice refuses to continue with a piano recital because racial segregation in the audience discriminates against her parents and a lifelong campaign for equality and justice begins. 

Otherwise the storytelling is sketchy and the monologue, interrupted too infrequently by extracts from songs, occasionally feels over-contrived. This is a life lived against the backdrop of huge social turmoil, but, with the exception of one account of an abusive relationship, it is not, as told here, a life of high personal drama and Campbell struggles to make the story gripping.

Soul Sessions is presented in simple cabaret style. Campbell, accompanied by Tim Shaw on keyboards, performs a selection of Simone’s best known songs, linking them with relaxed, good-humoured banter. Sinner Man, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Feeling Good, I Got Life and To Love Somebody all feature and her rendition of George Gershwin’s I Love You Porgy is outstanding.

Seen together, the two shows are less revelatory about Simone than we may have hoped, but they work much better as a showcase for the considerable talents of Campbell. When she opens her arms wide as if to embrace the whole audience, singing I Put a Spell on You, she really means it.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: