Writer: Joy Wilkinson      Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It could come as a surprise to many that, 143 years before Nicola Adams picked up her first Olympic Gold Medal, women’s boxing was already underway. Writer Joy Wilkinson delves into this little-known activity for her new play and uses it as the foundation for a startling, visceral account of early feminist struggles.

In 1869, former boxer “Professor” Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) is promoting women’s

boxing bouts at his Angel Islington amphitheatre, masking them as scientific experiments. He invents the title “Champion of the World” and offers four possible contenders. Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner) is a rough tomboy from the North, supposedly over-shadowed by her step-brother, aspiring boxer Paul (James Baxter). Matilda Blackwell (Jessica Regan) is a single Irish woman, paid a pittance as a typesetter at The Times and forced to work on the streets in order to survive.

Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) is a dutiful middle class wife and mother whose callous husband Gabriel (Joe Coen) becomes one of Matilda’s clients. Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale) is financially dependent on her Aunt George (Caroline Harker), a meek supporter of the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage. A nurse whose ambitions to become a doctor are thwarted, Violet seeks a more aggressive outlet for her frustration. Fate brings the four contenders together and into the boxing ring.

Structured in short scenes, the play feels fragmented in its early stages, but vivid writing and acting ensure that strong characters emerge quickly and take a firm hold. Wilkinson allows her work to be propelled more by its feminist sentiments than by plotting, but she weaves the four story strands, each representing a different area of female grievance, together skilfully. Combatants in the ring become comrades in life, rising against oppression in the home, on the streets and in the workplace. The writing is indeed bruising and striking images of raw violence, which contradict the familiar gentility of Victorian ladies, magnify its impact.

Director Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production captures the urgency and anger in the writing, drawing scenes together with melodramatic music. Fight scenes, directed by Alison de Burgh, give a visual dimension to the drama, highlighting the bloodiness of the women’s battles in and out of the ring. The studio space here is near-perfect for this play and designer Anna Reid does not need to do much to replicate the atmosphere of a boxing arena. However, her period costumes bring colour to the production and help to emphasise the contrasts in the stories.

Wilkinson’s men amount to very little. Charlie is a has-been, Gabriel is a dastardly villain and Paul lacks the stamina to keep up with hyperactive Polly. It is her women who dominate, delivering blow after blow and eventually achieving a knockout.

Performance date: 5 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: Hugh Whitemore      Director: Hannah Chissick

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Recent events in Salisbury have brought back the chill of the Cold War, making this revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play particularly timely and, with the Menier’s air-conditioning on a high setting, the audience feels that chill too. Pack of Lies is based on the real-life Portland Spy Ring affair of the early 1960s, telling the story of an infiltration by Soviet spies into a mundane middle class community in leafy Ruislip.

Barbara and Bob Jackson, the couple whose home is used by the Security Services to observe suspected Soviet agents across the road, were played in the original West End production by Judi Dench and Michael Williams. Here, their daughter, Finty Williams, is Barbara and Maggie Smith’s son, Chris Larkin, is Bob. Enthusiasts for thespian trivia will also note that Jasper Briton, who plays Stewart (we assume an MI5 agent), is the son of veteran actor Tony Britton.

The play contrasts ordinary everyday suburban British life with the fictional worlds of John le Carré and Ian Fleming. Paul Farnsworth’s meticulously detailed set and costumes capture ‘60s drab perfectly. An unfitted kitchen sits beside a cosy wall-papered living room, an open staircase rises from the hallway and a black Ford Consul is parked on the street outside. The production’s design is so of the period that it does the play the disservice of magnifying it’s old-fashioned style.

Barbara and Bob are “the sort of people who queue and don’t ask questions”. They and their teenage daughter, Julie (Macy Nyman) have become close friends with the Krogers, the Canadian couple who have lived across the road for the last five years. Peter (Alasdair Harvey) works mostly from home and Helen (Tracy-Ann Oberman) loves partying. On reflection, maybe a spy who wants to be as unobtrusive as possible would be less brash than the Helen seen here, but spies the Krogers are suspected of being and Britton’s stern and dapper Stewart bullies the Jacksons into allowing their house to be used as his observation base. Thelma (Natalie Walter) and Sally (Sia Dauda) take turns to keep watch from the front bedroom.

The scene-setting first act of director Hannah Chissick’s production is slow and ponderous, not compensating for the sparkle that is missing from Whitemore’s dialogue. It feels as if the writer and the actors are laying on the dreariness of Barbara and Bob too thickly and thereby making the drama dreary as well. However, intriguing themes begin to emerge, questioning the nature of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. At the heart of the play lies the dilemma of whether or not personal bonds between friends are or should be stronger than bonds with the State.

Main characters all take turns to speak directly to the audience, explaining matters that do not emerge naturally from the scenes, and this gives us useful insights. Once the production is in full stride in the second act, Williams and Larkin give fine performances, she falling apart as a result of her forced duplicity and he standing as her rock, but crumbling inside. Ultimately the play develops to become an overwrought, but nonetheless gripping drama.

Performance date: 2 October 2018

This review was originally  written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.coml

Writer: Nick Dear      Director: Anthony Banks

The Art of Success

⭐️⭐️.⭐️💫

Nick Dear’s 1986 play, The Art of Success, reflecting on the early life of the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It earned an Olivier Award nomination and a transfer to New York. The play is revived here as the first half of a double bill with the World Premiere of its sequel, The Taste of the Town.

Bryan Dick’s Hogarth could just as well be a painter of the house decorating kind as an artist; he is a cheeky Cockney wide boy who is always an outsider among the smart set of London. He divides his time between his prudish wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) and the prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), the former satisfying his social climbing ambitions, the latter his carnal desires. His art reflects a society in which lust and depravity are masked by superficial propriety, the subjects of his sketches, painting and engravings often being whores and convicted murderers.

Dear gives us a ribald comedy interwoven with debates on artistic themes – beauty versus ugly reality, integrity versus commerce, freedom of expression versus censorship. Hogarth is acquainted with Sir Robert Walpole (a grotesquely seedy Mark Umbers), a corrupt Prime Minister who kisses more than hands with his Queen (Susannah Harker). Walpole’s proposed copyright legislation could help to fill the pockets of Walpole, whose work is being copied freely, but it is accompanied by the introduction of the censorship laws that were to become a blight on British theatre for more than two centuries. This brings great displeasure to another of Walpole’s acquaintances, playwright and budding revolutionary Henry Fielding (Jack Derges), who decides that it is time for him to turn to writing novels.

The play takes us through a series of scrapes that Walpole’s mingling with society’s lower ranks takes him into. Jasmine Jones is splendidly earthy as Sarah Sprackling, a condemned woman who Walpole is commissioned to sketch in Newgate Prison. The artist looks for profit from selling prints after her execution, but Sarah dislikes his work and, insisting that a truthful image should remain after her death, she seeks to destroy it.

The timing of the comedy in Anthony Banks’ lively and free-flowing production is superb. Andrew D Edwards’ ingenious set designs help the staging greatly, using images projected onto a large screen behind an open thrust stage, which has a wide ramp descending into the audience. Two upper walkways convey the feel of an over-built inner city area, populated by the rich, the poor and the destitute.

An amusing twist near the end adds a modern slant on artistic imagery that could not have been part of the play’s original 1986 production. There are some nightmarish scenes and serious undercurrents, but, mostly the jokes come thick and fast and the only times that the play stops being funny are when Dear seems to become a little self-indulgent in expounding views on the arts. Overall, this revival can be branded fairly as a success.

The Taste of the Town

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written about 30 years after The Art of Success, and picking up on the life of the artist William Hogarth about 30 years after the first play left off, the World Premiere of this sequel forms the second part of a double bill, alongside a revival of its predecessor, all the actors from the first play taking on new roles.

Andrew D Edwards’ set for the opening scene is filled with greenery and dominated by a large Georgian-style house. The Taste of the Town takes us far away from the grimy inner city that we had seen before. “Miles and miles” away from town complains Hogarth’s snooty mother-in-law, as indeed Chiswick may have seemed before the opening of the District line. Squalor and ribaldry are replaced by more genteel comedy, tarts are forsaken in favour of teacakes.

Hogarth is now Sergeant Painter to King George III, able to enjoy the fruits of his artistic endeavours, but instead, he mourns the death of his beloved dog named Trump (pause for laughter) and rues the fact that he is still not held in the same esteem as the European masters or as…well “don’t mention Reynolds”. Apart from a rather touching epilogue, the play covers a single day in which Jane Hogarth (Susannah Harker) and her mother Lady Thornhill (Sylvestra Le Touzel seeming as is if she is auditioning to play Lady Bracknell) go shopping in Piccadilly while Hogarth himself walks upstream along the Thames to Strawberry Hill and back downstream.

The style is more Wildean than Hogarthian, with clever witticisms slipped into the dialogue at regular intervals. Hogarth is accompanied on part of his walk by his friend, the actor David Garrick (Mark Umbers), who is made to to seem overly vain in one of several jokes in the play that are a little too obvious. This plot is all very slight and as meandering as the river along which the artist is walking, but Keith Allen is in magnificent form playing Walpole as gruff, cantankerous and heavy drinking. When the play gets bogged down, Allen dredges it up.

Along the walk, Zachariah Blunt (Ben Deery), a disgruntled one-legged ex-soldier appears and Garrick has to perform, not too reluctantly, a scene from the Scottish Play to prove his identity in one of the play’s excellent comedy set pieces. In another, Walpole calls in at the palatial Strawberry Hill home of Robert Walpole’s son Horace, an acid-tongued art collector and critic. Is it possible that Ian Hallard’s portrayal of Horace is making references to a prominent modern-day right-wing politician?

There is little that is disagreeable about any of this, but director Anthony Banks’ production often feels lacklustre and there is disappointment that Dear picks up on the intriguing debates of his earlier work only fleetingly. The Taste of the Town seems unlikely to become the toast of the town, but Allen’s performance could well do so.

Performance date: 29 September 2018

These reviews were originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Simon Godwin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Forsaking togas and tiaras in favour of modern military uniforms and designer outfits, director Simon Godwin gives new life to William Shakespeare’s torrid account of a collision between power, politics and passion in the days of the Roman Empire. The age that it can take to perform the full version of this play may often wither the most enthusiastic of audiences, but, happily, there is no praying for a quick entrance by the asp here.

Anthony & Cleopatra combines the epic and the intimate. The Olivier Theatre is a house that always welcomes the former and challenges the latter and, if anything is missing in Godwin’s revival, it is a strong sense of the emotional hold that the central characters possess over each other. However, without significant cutting (the running time is still three hours and 30 minutes including an interval), this production’s triumph is in keeping us enthralled, at least until the particularly tricky last half hour.

At first, Ralph Fiennes’ Mark Antony has the look of a tired businessman, holidaying in Alexandria at the villa of his mistress, Sophie Okonedo’s tempestuous and capricious Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. He receives news of his wife’s death while wearing an open beach shirt and swigging from a bottle of beer. He returns dutifully to Rome where he is part of the triumvirate running the Empire, along with Lepidus, played by Nicholas Le Provost as a pacifying but weak general, and Octavius Caesar, made by Tunji Kasim to appear as a quick-tempered, ambitious upstart bureaucrat.

The irony of the Italy of 2,000 years ago being ruled by a loose coalition and fending off the threat of invaders from the Mediterranean is not lost in this modern day version of the play. Meanwhile back in Alexandria, poolside and very drunk, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s politically motivated marriage of convenience to Caesar’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) and all but shoots the messenger, Fisayo Akinade’s splendid Eros. This and a later scene are played for broad comedy and a peace conference between the triumvirate and invader Pompey (Sargon Yelda resembling a narcissistic martinet) descends into a drunken brawl.

It is Godwin’s willingness to jettison conventional staging that gives the play modern relevance and helps it to connect with a 2018 audience. It is an approach that may make the emotional core of the drama elusive, but its dividends are paid in the currency of clarity. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderfully imaginative, but still functional set designs serve the production perfectly, with the revolving stage being used fully to avoid loss of momentum.

Tim McMullan as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus, giving his sardonic commentary on the events, stands out in a strong ensemble. Okonedo is a radiant and wilful Cleopatra, but she reveals the depth of the Queen’s passion for Antony only in her closing scenes. Fiennes is an actor who exudes authority as soon as he walks onto a stage, yet his most memorable scenes here come when Antony’s authority is dissipating as a result of misjudgements partly caused by his obsession with Cleopatra. Fiennes strides around the stage like a fatally wounded lion, agonised by his decline and desperate to recapture the strength that is slipping away from him.

Leaving the National Theatre and glancing across the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster, scene of countless public battles and private scandals, comes into view. If nothing else, Godwin’s impressive revival brings home how little things change over time.

Performance date: 26 September 2018

Photo: Johan Persson

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The Other Place (Park Theatre)

Posted: September 25, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Sharr White      Director: Claire van Kempen

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

In American writer Sharr White’s 80-minute one-act play, the other place is a weekend retreat. It is also a dark area of the mind in which memories hide, delusions lurk and old mysteries resolve themselves without recourse to reason.

Juliana is 61, a medical practitioner who is now working in marketing for a drugs company. Played by Karen Archer, she is sarcastic and abrasive, speaking to an audience of doctors with confidence and authority. It is only when the outer layers of her persona are peeled away that we realise that her inner world is collapsing and that there is an alternative reality infiltrating interactions that we witness with her husband. We learn that Juliana is suffering from the onset of dementia.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is austere and functional, like a lecture theatre, with only one plain chair on the stage. It signifies the clinical environment that Juliana and her oncologist husband Ian (Neil McCaul) inhabit. It takes careful, methodical writing and superb acting to bring a thaw into these lives and reveal the emotional anguish that both of the characters are suffering. Eliza Collings works hard and to excellent effect in three prominent supporting roles

Juliana is convinced that Ian is having an affair with a work colleague and is preparing for a divorce. She is oblivious to his denials. In the background, there lies an unsolved mystery relating to the disappearance, at the weekend retreat 10 years earlier, of the couple’s young daughter. Juliana reports that she is receiving telephone calls from her and news of their son-in-law and grandchildren, but Ian remains indifferent. The marital disharmony at first seem baffling until we are allowed to delve deeper into the delusions brought about by Juliana’s illness. 

White’s play, getting its UK premiere here, tells its story in non-linear form. Facts emerge in jumbled order, perhaps as they exist in Juliana’s brain, and we are asked to piece them together, discarding segments that do not fit, to complete the jigsaw. It is an intriguing process, but Claire van Kempen’s uncluttered production gives it clarity and the production as a whole offers a fascinating perspective on an all-too-common human condition.

Performance date: 24 September 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub. http://www.thereviewshub.com

Arabian Nights (Hoxton Hall)

Posted: September 20, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Nessah Muthy      Director: Daniel Winder

⭐️⭐️⭐️

A smell of burning incense fills the air and a faint haze lingers. Hoxton Hall, with its dark walls and ornate decorations, was once a Victorian Music Hall and it is certainly not short on atmosphere for Iris Theatre’s family-friendly telling of fables of the fabulous and fearsome, drawn from a bygone civilisation.

Writer Nessah Muthy frames the tales cleverly even if her dialogue never quite matches the colour and sparkle of the show’s costumes, designed by Maddy Ross-Mason. Sharazad (Sharon Singh) is a slave at the court of the woman-hating tyrant King Shahryar (Pravessh Raga) and protector of her younger sister Dunzayad (Izzy Jones). The King takes a new bride every evening only to have her killed the following morning and, in order to delay what seems to be the inevitable, Sharazad begins to enthral him with her tales.

Daniel Winder’s full-blooded production adapts the space to create intimacy. A thrust stage extends into the stalls, well below the neck-craningly high main stage and draws the audience into the storytelling. The centrepiece of the first half of the show is the story of Ali Baba ((Hemi Yeroham) and the treasure of the thieves’ cave; in the second half, Yeroham turns up again as an aged Sinbad, recalling his voyages, which are depicted using spectacular puppets, designed by Jonny Dixon.

With lashings of imagination, Winder conjures up an eye-catching show out of very little.                Maya Britto and Ikky Elyas join the four named previously to make up the six actors who are rotated skilfully to play all the roles, often behind grotesque masks, and to serve as puppeteers. The Sinbad story in particular has a cartoon-like feel which should appeal to children. The show is given an 8+ rating, but it does not shy away from the barbarism in the stories and many of the monstrous beasts and giant ogres that appear could prove more than a little scary.

Grown-ups may be over-familiar with the stories and, apart from occasional nods to modern feminist themes, Muthy finds little new to say to them. At 150 minutes (including interval), the show is much too long and there is a strong feeling that it includes at least one tale too many. This is a show to take the kids along to and provide a comforting shoulder for them to hide their frightened eyes when the monsters appear.

Performance date: 19 September 2018

Photograph: Ali Wright

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Foxfinder (Ambassadors Theatre)

Posted: September 15, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Dawn King      Director: Rachel O’Riordan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is a bit like old times at the Ambassadors Theatre, the original home of The Mousetrap. Dawn King’s play, first seen at the tiny Finborough Theatre in 2011, is a creepy thriller set in an isolated part of rural England, where any knock on the door carries a threat.

This is one of the West End’s cosiest venues, but the audience can only look into the remote farmhouse set from the outside, rather than sit inside it, as at the Chelsea pub theatre. This matters, because, having established its premise, the play has very little plot and relies on atmosphere and suggested menace to build its tension. Gary McCann’s gloomy, imposing set, beautifully lit by Paul Anderson, does an excellent job to compensate. Stone stairs stretch up to the full height of the stage and a barren landscape forms an eerie backdrop.

The action takes place in a dystopian future when there is urban food rationing and England relies solely on home-grown produce. After a a no-deal Brexit perhaps? Even the weather has taken a turn for the worse and an authoritarian government keeps order and spreads fear by issuing propaganda about the dangers posed by foxes to communities and food production. In 2011, the term “fake news” had not come into common usage, so King’s themes now look rather prescient.

The mysterious death of a young son and a cat gone missing lead to suspicions that there could be foxes on the farm run by Samuel and Judith. This leads to the arrival of a government foxfinder William, a 19-year-old who had been raised in a state institution and who, it transpires, has a liking for self-flagellation. King throws us these interesting tit-bits of information about William, but she does not complete the jigsaw and misses out on opportunities to explore the psychology that underlies her story.

As William, Iwan Rheon strikes a good balance between a figure of authority and a confused boy, not allowing himself to challenge government policy, but increasingly doubting its validity. Paul Nicholls’ Samuel is a grief-stricken dad who turns into a fervent supporter of the anti-fox campaign as if he sees it as a means to release him from his pain. Heida Reed’s Judith is more rational, intent on keeping the farm, but quietly questioning the government line, encouraged by pro-fox neighbour Sarah (Bryony Hannah).

King’s writing is high on overt symbolism, but low on humour and thrills. There is neither enough depth nor warmth to any of the characters, which leads to Rachel O’Riordan’s taut production often feeling more chilly than chilling. As a political parable, the play makes its point, but, as a suspense thriller, it does not really go anywhere. Agatha Christie would never have allowed audiences to leave the Ambassadors before giving them a cracking dénouement.

Performance date: 14 September 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com