Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Retrograde (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Ryan Calais-Cameron

Director: Amit Sharma


The image of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood has already been tarnished for many reasons and Ryan Calais-Cameron’s new one-act play exposes yet another. Retrograde centres on an episode in the 1950s, during the early career of the great black actor, Sidney Poitier. Poignantly, this World Premiere coincides with the death of Harry Belafonte, who is mentioned in the play several times as Poitier’s friend.

The drama unfolds in the office of prominent lawyer Mr Parks, made by Daniel Lapaine to look like an unscrupulous bully. He takes on the role of defender of American value and he is joined by Bobby, an ambitious screenwriter with liberal leanings (“I’m the blackest white man you know”). Bobby has a screenplay about to be produced for network television by NBC and he wants a black actor to play the leading role, choosing Poitier, who is already a friend. Parks has drawn up the contracts and they are waiting to be signed.

Ivanno Jeremiah’s Sidney is amiable, dignified and determined. He does not actually speak the words “call me MISTER Poitier”, paraphrasing the actor’s most famous line, but his manner says it silently. There is a snag. Parks’ contracts include an oath to uphold American values and a denunciation as a Communist sympathiser of the legendary actor, singer and black rights activist Paul Robeson.

The McCarthy era, rooting out allegedly un-American activities overlaps with the start of the Civil Rights movement to give the play its toxic context. Should Poitier sign the oath to further his career ambitions and avoid being blacklisted by Hollywood? Or should he stay true to his friends and his strong personal beliefs by not signing? The clash of ideals makes compelling drama.

Retrograde is an obvious must-see for film buffs, but it raises concerns that go far wider than just cinema history. At one point, during one of Parks’ right wing rants, Lapaine seems to mimic the gestures and speech tones of a recent (and possibly future) American President. This draws laughter, but it could be a reminder that paranoia and hysteria can overtake reason just as easily now as 70 years ago at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Amit Sharma’s fiery production is given a handsome look by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design of Parks’ office and, in the climactic clashes, the writing and the acting are outstanding. The play takes its time to get to the point, but, when it arrives there, the heat that it generates is intense.

Performance date: 26 April 2023

Writer and director: Eliana


A hit at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Eliana Ostro’s 70-minute one act comedy is revived as half of the first of the Park Theatre’s Make Mine a Double offerings, comprising new(ish), short(ish) plays. It explores the absurdities of 21st Century dating and the obstacles which lie in the way to achieving emotional fulfilment. 

Fluorescent lighting surrounds the studio space and loud dance music plays. We enter a pulsating, youthful venue where we meet W (Annie Davison) and M (Rufus Love), both out clubbing with their mates. Each has been dumped recently by partners and their self confidence is low, but both spring to life to The Killers’ Mr Brightside and their frantic dancing brings them to the notice of each other.

What follows is completely predictable, but Ostro introduces the clever device of allowing the characters to speak not only to each other, but also to the audience directly. Amusingly, their inept chat-up lines are often the exact opposite of what they truly think or what they mean to say. The writer exposes the falsehoods underlying modern mating rituals ruthlessly, laying bare the common insecurities and genuine aspirations of 20-something singles.

Davison and Love synchronise their performances beautifully, injecting pace and energy into a familiar story. Peer pressure is a key factor distorting the natural development of the couple’s relationship and the writer brings in many (perhaps too many) other characters, all played by the same two actors, to demonstrate this

This revival feels slightly overlong, occasionally getting diverted off course by more secondary characters than the play’s structure is designed to carry. Otherwise, this is a breezy, lightweight romp in which  the laughs flow freely and the comedy rarely misses a beat.

Performance date: 16 November 2022

Brown Boys Swim (Soho Theatre)

Posted: September 29, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: Geraint Lewis

Writer: Karim Khan

Director: John Hoggarth


Floating lightly over the choppy waters of social integration, Brown Boys Swim, an award-winning hit at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, arrives well trumpeted, seeking to make a splash on the fringe of London’s West End. Karim Khan’s 70-minute comedy/drams turns out to be funny, relevant and, ultimately, moving.

Mohan (Anish Roy) and Kash (Varun Raj) are school boys in their late teens. They are British South Asians living in Oxford and aspiring to study at the local university. The dynamics of their long time friendship centre around the assumptions that Kash is the smarter of the two and that the more hesitant Mohan will follow wherever he leads. When Kash decides that the pair must attend a pool party, hosted by a class mate, his plans seem thwarted by the fact that neither can swim. So they set out to learn, with hilarious results.

Mohan and Kash fall between two cultural stools. Pulled in one direction by their Muslim faith and another by the need which they feel to integrate with the white English middle class, they find that the perceived social ladder which they hope to climb is actually a greasy pole. They are confronted by lingering traces of racial prejudice and lured into previously alien pursuits, such as drinking alcohol.

Khan’s writing captures the cheekiness, mixed with trepidation, of youth on the cusp of adulthood. The two protagonists tease each other playfully as they grapple with the potential challenges of the real world.

The writer’s message to the likes of Mohan and Kash seems to ask why they should bother going in for synchronised swimming with the pack when they can prosper by just being themselves.

Director John Hoggarth’s pacy production only slows to a crawl when necessary costume changes pause its momentum. It is energised by Roy and Ray, who form an argumentative comedy double act with great chemistry. James Button’s set design uses a minimum of props to allow for a maximum of movement, simulated swimming included.

There is poignancy underpinning all the comedy and it comes sharply to the surface in an unexpected ending. Brown Boys Swim offers up plenty of food for thought while it entertains.

Performance date: 28 September 2022

Bad Jews (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: xzEllie Kurttzj

Writer: Joshua Harmon

Director: Jon Pashley


There must be something really good about Bad Jews. Repeated appearances in the West End over a period of more than seven years indicate enduring popularity with audiences. The play, an aggressive, dark comedy by American writer Joshua Harmon, premiered in New York in 2013 before opening at the Ustinov Studios in Bath in 2014 with a production which transferred to London. 

In similar fashion to the hit musical Book of Mormon, the comedy satirises features of a religious group, pushes hard against the boundaries of good taste and, seemingly, ends up offending nobody. It is the perfect antidote to the anodyne comedies that can emerge from over-adherence to modern codes of political correctness.

Harmon gets away with it simply because his depiction of dysfunctional Jewish family life is laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its 90 minutes running time (no interval). Jonah and Liam are brothers, Daphna is their cousin and the three are temporarily corralled together in Jonah’s New York studio apartment in order to attend the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna brandishes her Jewishness like a medal of honour, Liam, who arrives with his girlfriend a day late, is more respectful towards Japanese culture than his own and Jonah just wants to be left out of the rows that inevitably ensue. 

The play’s opening scene is slow; it takes a few minutes for it to register just how much of a horror Rosie Yadid’s Daphna is; her self-righteousness and her use of tactless, acid put-downs to bulldoze over her kin are a shocking joy. She is the Jewish matriarch of countless New York comedies, albeit at least 20 years younger than those stereotypes. “Pappy” left a family heirloom and she wants it, but Liam actually has it, paving the way for total warfare. Ashley Margolis’ Liam is a picture of suppressed rage until Daphna exits to the bathroom, when he lets rip with a marathon rant, one of the play’s great set pieces. 

Another highlight follows when the ironically named Melody (Olivia Le Andersen), Liam’s demure, non-Jewish girlfriend, gives an excruciating rendition of Summertime from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Underlying all the hilarity, Harmon is questioning the places of faith and tradition in the modern world and showing us how the behaviour of both Daphna and Liam is equally reprehensible; she is flaunting hollow, materialistic values and he is denying his heritage, while secretly clinging to it. Poignantly, the seemingly passive Jonah (Charlie Beaven) demonstrates that there is a more dignified way to balance conflicting forces. 

For this revival, Jon Pashley takes over the director’s reins from Michael Longhurst, ensuring maximum mayhem in a minimum of space. In Richard Kent’s design for the cramped studio apartment, there is barely room for the actors to move without tripping over a makeshift bed and the conflict, often raucous, is up close and personal. It will be bad news if Bad Jews does not go on reappearing for some considerable time to come.

Performance date: 26 July 2022

Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

Writer: Lucy Kirkwood

Director: Lucy Morrison


If you have booked tickets to see That Is Not Who I Am, new writer Dave Davidson’s thriller about identity theft, prepare to be surprised or perhaps, disappointed. No, it is not yet another cancellation due to Covid; the reason is that neither the play nor the playwright actually exists. They are no more than a smokescreen for the real play, Lucy Kirkwood’s Rapture, a work which we are told is deemed to be so explosive that its mere existence needed to be kept under wraps.

Kirkwood showed all the instincts of an investigative journalist when sifting through video evidence from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to find inspiration for her 2013 hit drama, Chimerica. Here, she uses similar techniques to probe events much closer to home in the United Kingdom in revealing the story of Noah and Celeste Quilter from their first meeting on a blind date in 2011 through to a conclusion in December 2021. Spoilers will be avoided in the review which follows.

Noah is an ex-serviceman, Celeste a nurse in the National Health Service. Their dinner date is awkward, but they find chemistry and boast afterwards that they left the restaurant without paying the bill; Kirkwood quotes evidence to suggest that this version of events could be untrue. So all is not what it seems, but, more concerning, the couple sense that their innocent conversation is being overheard. They go on to move in together, marry and have a baby daughter, building a home in which they have only each other to interact with and trust. All the time, their paranoia about being listened to and watched grows.

Played by Jake Davies and Siena Kelly, Noah and Celeste are simply “two of us”, living ordinary, unremarkable lives. As such, they are completely believable and it takes interjections by Kirkwood herself, played by Priyanga Burford, as narrator to remind us that something is dreadfully amiss. Burford’s anxious tone and urgent delivery ratchet up tension as we watch the couple transform from sceptics who question the establishment, climate change, the pandemic and so on, into neo revolutionaries with almost a million followers on their You Tube channel.

Working together, the writer and director Lucy Morrison make thrilling theatre. Designer Naomi Dawson’s ingenious revolving set frames the claustrophobic world of a couple glued together, with the narrator and stage hands roaming around outside it to suggest constant intrusions on their privacy. Their minds become taken over by conspiracy theories and every conspiracy theory is seen to be part of a bigger conspiracy theory

Ironically, Kirkwood’s play is itself planting a conspiracy theory and, cleverly, she casts doubt on the conclusions which she is reaching. She invites us to trust in the thoroughness of her research, make our own decisions, mull over the implications thereof and then shudder.

Performance date: 16 June 2022

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Anupama Chandrasekhar

Director: Indhu Rubasingham


How long does it take for a real life murder to become a laughing matter? 74 years perhaps? The question arises because of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new play about the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. The play surprises everyone by setting out its stall as a frivolous comedy, only moving on to grittier stuff when the action is well underway.

The assassin, Nathuram Godse (Shubham Saraf) is convicted and awaiting execution. Saraf steps forward and addresses the audience directly, picking out individual members and prowling around in the manner of a stand-up comic. “Forget the Attenborough film and Sir Ben Kingsley” he advises, adding a quiet sideways chuckle. The irreverence is irresistible and Saraf, never off stage, is terrific.

Director Indhu Rubasingham’s expansive production uses the adaptability of the Olivier stage rather than formal sets. With a company of 19, some crowd scenes are thrilling, but others are confusing. When the comedy diminishes, the production frequently loses its way. The play is presented as an epic history story on a grand scale, a concept that is not entirely consistent with the humorous writing.

Godse tells the story of how he came to commit the infamous deed, starting with his first chance encounter with Gandhi (Paul Bazely) at the age of seven. His superstitious parents believed that only their daughters survived infancy and so they raised him as a girl. This gives Saraf another opportunity to milk the comedy by donning drag. Eventually, Godse strikes out for his own freedom and champions the cause of his nation’s freedom from British Colonial rule.

The story continues with our “hero” attending school at Pune and beginning an apprenticeship as a tailor, frequently crossing paths with his eventual victim. He becomes a passionate supporter of a Hindu  India, free from Britain and, as the comedy diminishes, this is where the play’s problems begin. We are now asked to take this figure of fun seriously as a red blooded revolutionary, at odds with Gandhi’s advocacy of pacifism as a weapon of warfare, and the transition is hard to accept.

As independence draws nearer, the play goes deeper into the murky waters of Indian politics, involving Gandhi and India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru (Marc Elliott). The contentious issue is partition of Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, rushed through by a British  government intent on what Godse describes as “a quick Brexit”. Many will already be familiar with the history (if only from having seen that Attenborough film) and the play adds little to it, but it seems that partition is the assassin’s chief grievance against Gandhi. Given the benefit of hindsight, Chandrasekhar sees a catastrophic error that would lead to genocide, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation and decades of simmering conflict, although the writer puts the words into the mouth of the doomed Godse, for whom it is foresight.

The Father and the Assassin is a mixed bag, elevated by Saraf’s central performance. This is a personal triumph for him. He owns the stage from start to finish and makes what could have resembled a wearying dissertation on Indian political history at least bearable and frequently entertaining, even though nothing in this story is really a laughing matter.

Performance date: 19 May 2022

Old Bridge (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 28, 2021 in Uncategorized

Writer: Igor Memic

Director: Selma Dimitrijevic


It is possible to think of wartime atrocities either as part of distant history or, in a modern context, as taking place on far away continents. However, we must not forget how recent and how close to our own doorstep were the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. British writer Igor Memic’s 2020 Papatango Prize-winning drama serves as a chilling jolt to the memory.

The story begins in 1988, when the city of Mostar, located in modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina, is still part of Yugoslavia. The historic landmark Old Bridge spans the river which divides the city, vaguely on ethnic lines. It brings communities together, never more so than on one day each Summer when it becomes the scene of a diving competition. Mili (Dino Kelly), a young man from another city, joins the competition and jumps from the bridge, catching the eye of local girl, Mina (Saffron Coomber). She is watching with her friends Leila (Rosie Gray) and Sasha (Emilio Iannucci), the joker in the pack until the jokes turn sour.

Mostar’s people identify as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian and so on; they may be Catholic, or Moslem, or Jewish. Their lives are inter-connected but shifting in ways that Mili likens to a Rubik’s Cube. Mina and Mili fall in love, but the play does not turn into an updating of Romeo and Juliet; the couple’s dreams are shattered not by their own family or ethnic divisions, but by the horrors of the warfare that begins to rage all around them. 

Memic does not concern himself with politics and he teaches us few specific details of the wars taking place in the Balkans region at that time. His focus is solely on the play’s characters, assessing the impact of epic events on their lives. Director Selma Dimitrijevic’s production, on a wide stage, unadorned by formal sets and with few props, conveys a sense of small people caught up in a vast tide of uncontrollable events, but this sometimes comes at the expense of projecting the intimacy of close friendships.

The writer gives the play a historical perspective through the eyes of Emina, who serves as a form of narrator, looking back from around 30 years later. Occasionally, it feels as if this character is being over used; we want the four young people to speak more for themselves and the actors playing them to expand the characters and perform all of their stories. However, much of Memic’s most lyrical and graphic writing falls to Emina and Susan Lawson-Reynolds is a commanding presence, speaking it with great clarity and emotional intensity.

Throughout the play, Old Bridge is seen as a symbol of division and unification, destruction and renewal. Memic gives us a powerful and moving reminder of the fragility of the peace that we take too easily for granted,

Performance date: 27 October 2021

Writer: Harold Pinter Director: Alice Hamilton


It has been a long wait. Celebrating its 60th birthday, Hampstead Theatre announced a “greatest hits” season early in 2020, starting with a revival of Harold Pinter’s one-act classic The Dumb Waiter, which received its world premiere here in 1960. When the play was staged in the West End only last year, it formed half of a double bill and eyebrows were raised at the prospect of paying normal ticket prices for a mere 55 minutes of theatre (with no interval, but plenty of Pinter pauses). Now, many months later, the production finally hits the stage in a socially distanced environment and such reservations feel irrelevant. All that theatre-starved audiences should want to do is rejoice at its arrival.

The play could be viewed as a sinister comedy or an absurdist thriller and even its title has alternative interpretations. Ben and Gus are hit men despatched by an unseen Mr Big to a derelict building in Birmingham to await the arrival of their mysterious next victim. It is a Friday and Aston Villa may or may not be playing at home to Spurs that weekend. In James Perkins’ bleak design, single beds stand on opposite sides of their undecorated room. They taunt each other with inconsequential small talk and then, with a rumble and thud, a dumb waiter appears from what is, apparently, a cafeteria above. It contains orders for meals and drinks, but the gas supply to the kitchen has been cut off and the ingredients needed to fulfil the orders are not available. They respond by sending up what little they can find – a packet of crisps, a stale Eccles cake, a half-pint of sour milk, etc.

An air of foreboding hangs over Alice Hamilton’s production from the outset. Tempo is key, as the famous pauses are followed by rat-a-tat exchanges and then more silence. Questions are asked and left unanswered and clues are placed alluding to the play’s ultimate twist, which, itself, asks yet more questions. The writer is teasing the audience continuously; nothing is what it seems, nor as, in a real world, it could possibly be. The uncertainty keeps us as much on edge as it does Ben and Gus.

Alec Newman’s Ben has the marks of seniority, but his assertiveness is undermined by suggestions of deep unease; we suspect that he knows more than he is letting on either to Gus or to us. Shane Zaza’s Gus is, at times, a gormless junior, but his failure to obtain answers to the most obvious questions drives him into an anguished frenzy. Together, the actors master the tones and rhythms of Pinter’s multi-layered dialogue to near perfection..

Inevitably, this play has been likened to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but Hamilton’s meticulously detailed revival shows us that Pinter’s early work has a clear identity of its own. This short, sharp theatrical treat has been well worth waiting for.

Performance date: 8 December 2020

The Weatherman (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Uncategorized

Writer: Eugene O’Hare      Director: Alice Hamilton


In the first of his two plays receiving their world premieres at the Park Theatre this year, Eugene O’Hare turns to a retro style of black comedy in order to explore deeply disturbing modern themes.

At first glance, The Weatherman appears to be an undisguised homage to Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, The Caretaker. Two middle-aged, down-and-out East London men share a dilapidated one-bedroomed flat, owned by a ruthless gangster. The early dialogue is infused with Pinteresque absurdism – “it creeps up on you when you least expect it you see – Christmas; the bastard” – and brings reminders of ‘60s television sitcoms centring on bickering, dysfunctional London families, such as Steptoe and Son. 

Director Alice Hamilton seems happy for the opening scenes to be played for comedy, while ensuring that, also in the style of Pinter, a sense of hidden menace is ever present. This is a flat where every arrival (bar one) is preceded by loud thumping on the stairs. Designer James Perkins’ set is a cheaply-furnished kitchen diner, with only murk discernible beyond its windows.

O’Rourke (Alec Newman) is the dominant flatmate, but a man of few words. We know that he is angry, but, for a long time, we have no idea why. Beezer (Mark Hadfield) is a shambolic drunkard who claims that he could have been a meteorologist if he had put his mind to it. He still forecasts the weather every day. Their landlord is Dollar, played by David Schaal with a veneer of benevolence masking deep-rooted evil. Dollar is an East End villain who exploits his victims without mercy, but also possesses a warped vision of family and loyalty. “She was a crook and a womaniser, but she was still my mother” he boasts, tearfully.

The play moves into even darker territory when Dollar brings to the flat Mara (Niamh James), a 12-year-old Romanian girl. The offer that O’Rourke and Beezer can’t refuse is six months free of rent and some extra cash. The terms are that they look after the girl and only allow her out of the flat when Dollar’s heavy, Turkey (Cyril Nri) accompanies her for a “job”. Fortunately, both writer and director realise that there is nothing remotely funny about child trafficking for prostitution and the delicate balance between comedy and drama is carefully maintained.

The most memorable and moving scene comes at the beginning of the second act when O’Rourke sits with Mara, folding old clothes for despatch to a charity shop and he sets about offloading all his problems, knowing fully that the girl has no understanding of English. Newman finds all the pathos in his character and in the desperate situation. O’Hare is writing about the terrors of exploitation and he offers the bleak prognosis that the dice will always be loaded against the exploited. Mara, lying on a camp bed at the front of the stage while the nastiness unfolds behind her, creates a profoundly unsettling image.

For all its humour, The Weatherman has a gloomy outlook on human nature. However, bold, if derivative, writing and outstanding acting make the production genuinely suspenseful and absorbing.

Performance date: 21 August 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Patrick Marber


We may expect works by Harold Pinter to be dark, comedic and enigmatic and this collection of short plays, the fifth in Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season, delivers to varying degrees in all those respects. However, there is a more specific unifying theme here, that of human disconnection and loneliness.

The Room is Pinter’s first play, written in 1957, and the writer’s depiction of London working class life at that time is indeed grim. The setting is a bed sitting room in an old house that is freezing cold in the basement and progressively gets more damp as it rises. Outside on the deserted streets it is a bleak Winter afternoon. The room, realised starkly in Soutra Gilmour’s design and Richard Howell’s lighting, is occupied by a married couple,  Rose and Bert.

Jane Horrocks is quietly affecting as Rose. Her appearance, in dull housecoat and turban, could be modelled on Hilda Ogden and her Lancashire accent tells us that she does not really belong here. She chatters incessantly while Bert says nothing, but Rupert Graves’ performance suggests that his silence could be a controlling mechanism. Writing in an era when psychological domestic abuse would have been barely acknowledged, Pinter shows remarkable insight.

The characters have no back stories and they are given no lives outside a room where we sense hidden menace in all corners. The writer’s skill lies in not pinpointing any exact threat until the very end. Could the threat come from Nicholas Woodeson’s sinister landlord, or from a young couple (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) looking for a room (perhaps this same room) to rent? Maybe a blind stranger (Colin McFarlane) is bringing something worse than just a message for Rose. The denouement is shocking.

Victoria Station could have been written when Pinter was stuck in traffic, sitting in the back of a minicab and listening to anonymous disembodied voices floating across the airwaves. The 10-minute play is little more than a comedy sketch, first performed on radio in 1982, but the visual image here of two men, both in small boxes, separated by the width of the stage, reinforces a sense of their isolation. McFarlane is the conscientious controller frustrated in his attempts to have a sensible conversation with Graves’ gormless driver. A lucrative fare awaits at Victoria Station, but, before the arrival of Sat Nav, the driver has no idea where the station is. Pinter’s take on distant communications in the days of radio is wryly amusing and leaves us wondering what he might have made of social media.

Family Voices (1981), also written for radio, explores the paradox of family members being inextricably bound together and irresistibly torn apart. Thallon plays a young man who is alone and talking into thin air to the parents from whom he is estranged. He shares the inconsequential trivia of his daily life with them, and the actor, moving from calm confidence to frenzied anguish shows us the desperation of someone who is crying out for help and hearing no response. Horrocks plays the now widowed mother, also alone and talking to her absent son The vacant expression on her face shows reciprocated pain and abandonment. Graves appears briefly as the dead father/husband, but, essentially, this is a profoundly moving two-hander. When mother and son come within touching distance of each other on stage, the chasm between them is at its most apparent and it is heartbreaking.

Director Patrick Marber’s production is meticulously detailed, carefully paced and faultlessly performed. Seen together, these three studies in urban solitude complement each other and leave a lasting impression that is deeply unsettling.

Performance date: 5 January 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: