Creators: The Wardrobe Ensemble      Directors: Jesse Jones and Helen Middleton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Before Afghanistan, Iraq, the banking crisis, austerity and Brexit, there existed hope for a brighter new Millennium for our country. Wardrobe Ensemble’s raucous show is set in a comprehensive school in May 1997, when the Spice Girls, Take That and Oasis filled the airwaves, the United Kingdom won the Eurovision Song Contest and a new Government was elected, led by a politician who had earlier proclaimed: “ask me my three main priorities for Government, and I will tell you: education, education and education”.

Tobias (a beautifully deadpan performance by James Newton) is German, a newly-arrived assistant teacher. His observations as an outsider provide a thread to link the narrative and he comments on the initial euphoria of a school itching to get a bite of the £3 billion promised for education and on a country that is revelling in the limelight of Cool Britannia and still besotted by its beautiful princess. How quickly things were to change.

Directors Jesse Jones and Helen Middleton create pandemonium on stage, which is a fair reflection of this school, which has a crumbling building and text books that are 15 years old. It is located in some place in England which, oddly, seems to have missed out on ethnic diversity. Authoritarian Head of Discipline, Miss Turner (Hanora Kamen) shows little self-discipline in her extra-curricular liaison with fellow teacher Mr McIntyre (Tom Brennan); rookie teacher, Miss Belltop-Doyle (Jesse Meadows) exerts no discipline at all in her classes, which is little wonder when she chooses to address pupils in a Ginger Spice costume.

Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy) puts the life of a confiscated Tamagotchi in peril, while Mr Mills (Tom England) slips into his alter ego of King Arthur and fights on behalf of a pupil in a situation where mild rebellion could turn into social alienation. The rebellious pupil, Emily Greenslade is played as a high-spirited loner by Emily Greenslade. Art imitating life perhaps. There are serious issues here and there, but, mostly, they are carried along on waves of physical energy and good humour,

When Tobias contrasts the optimism for the school in 1997 with how events actually unfolded over the ensuing 20 years, he teaches us that the woes of our education system cannot be resolved solely by injections of cash nor by Government interference. At 75 minutes, this production is shorter than the average double History lesson, but it is almost certainly a whole lot sharper and more fun.

Performance date: 5 June 2019

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

Flinch (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: May 31, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Emma Hemingford.     Director: Rosalind Brody

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

They say that writers should begin by writing about what they know best and there are more than a few hints that Emma Hemingford has followed that advice to the letter with her new one-act play, Flinch, a screwball relationship comedy. In it, she plays Jess, an out-of-work actor who takes up the suggestion that she should write a play for herself to perform and then bases the play on her own crumbling relationship.

Jess has just moved from Bristol to London to share a flat with her boyfriend of three years, Mark (Joseph Reed). He has a boring job in finance and he hates plays, except for ones in which Jess is appearing (which are none). The play begins with the couple returning to their flat from a night at the theatre, seeing a play about cats in which all the actors are naked. Mark had loathed it and few would blame him.

On the journey home, Jess had escaped unharmed from an assault by a mugger with a pretend gun, actually a banana, but instead of rushing to her aid, Mark had, momentarily, flinched. The incident triggers an argument that exposes the uncertainties and insecurities  of a frail new(ish) relationship and asks questions about gender roles. Does a modern woman really still expect her man to be a knight in shining armour and does a modern man need to feel uncomfortable about not filling that role?

As the argument deepens, the relatively minor incident grows in significance and the crazed figure of the banana-wielding mugger (Andrew Armitage) comes back repeatedly to haunt the couple, even in their most intimate moments. Hemingford’s writing is humorous and insightful and director Rosalind Brody gives the play a breezy production. The white set looks as if it has been assembled from flat packs, making it the obvious home for a mid-twenties London couple and the writer and Reed give natural performances that bring out both the comedy and their characters’ everyday anxieties.

Flinch may be slight and a little bit overlong, but freshness is its winning asset and, hopefully, Mark would find it a great deal more agreeable than the one about the cats.

Performance date: 29 May 2019

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

Writer: Carl Grose      Music: Charles Hazlewood.     Director: Mike Shepherd

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

John Gay’s 1728 musical immorality tale, The Beggar’s Opera has proved to be a durable piece. Not only is it revived regularly, but it has also inspired variations, the most notable of which is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Now Kneehigh has given it a 21st Century twist, perhaps aiming to teach an old dog new tricks.

The show’s sleazy urban underworld setting is a place so devoid of heroes that we are left rooting for a thief, murderer and bigamist, but Dominic Marsh’s Macheath has enough cheeky Jack-the-Lad charm to win us over. Macheath is contracted to kill the city’s mayor, which he does efficiently, despatching his victim’s dog too, thereby preventing him from being called as a witness. The contract had been issued by the villainous Peachums, played by Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania with more than a hint of mid-year pantomime.

In steps corrupt police officer Lockit (Giles King) on a mission to catch Macheath, encouraged by the duplicity of the Peachums. With bribe money being placed in a suitcase and the canine corpse in another identical one, a mix-up is inevitable. To add further confusion, Macheath has just married the Peachums’ daughter, Polly (Angela Hardie), having already impregnated Lockit’s daughter, Lucy (Beverly Rudd). 

Writer Carl Grose keeps the flavour of Gay and works from the same narrative, but the sense of time is vague (only references to ‘phone use suggest that it is much later than 1728.). Charles Hazlewood’s catchy pop/rock songs, many of them sounding as if they would not have been out of place on a Madness album, give the show much of its energy. This is an ensemble production, with the best songs shared around, and there are stand-out performances from Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s vengeful widow and Georgia Frost as the Peachums’ lackey, Filch.

Director Mike Shepherd’s production has exuberance and invention, although the second half is decidedly slicker than the first. The musicians are integrated into the action and puppets (including a High Court Judge with a voice like Margaret Thatcher) swell the numbers on stage still further. In one particularly amusing scene, a creche full of puppet babies gang up to terrify their presumed father, Macheath. There is a sense of constant bustle around Michael Vale’s split-level set, seen through Malcom Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting, and the show builds up to a finale of spectacular destruction, in which all the characters get pretty much what they deserve.

Modern day references are disappointingly rare in this update, the show’s kick coming from timeless, rather than contemporary relevance. And so Gay’s classic comes back to entertain new audiences, proving that there is still life in the old dog, in spite of what the show’s title suggests.

Performance date: 23 May 2019

Photo: Steve Tanner

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

Writer: Jonathan Maitland      Director: Lotte Wakeham

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Popping into a nearby bookmaker’s shop on the way to the opening night of Jonathan Maitland’s new play, a quick check of the odds reveals that Boris Johnson is the current favourite to fill the impending vacancy for the job of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. This news adds urgency to the play’s key question: is its central character a political leader who presents himself as a clown or a clown who presents himself as a political leader?

The play is a soft-centred satire that has plentiful humour but little real bite. Maitland’s style is to find a good joke, sometimes a very good one, and then take it too far. In consequence a repeated pattern emerges of belly laughs followed by yawns. To his credit, the writer neither demeans Johnson nor questions his intelligence and there are even suggestions of affection for him, brought out by Will Barton playing him as a little boy lost who deliberately dishevels his hair before appearing on television.

As an impressionist, Barton does a pretty good job and gets the audience chuckling before words are spoken. The opening scene is set in early 2016 in the Johnson kitchen/diner, Boris and his then wife, human rights lawyer Marina Wheeler (Davina Moon), having set a table for six guests – the unswervingly prevaricating Michael Gove (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), his wife (Arabella Weir), the unswervingly name dropping owner of the Evening Standard, Evgeny Lebedev (Tim Wallers) and his plus one, Liz Hurley, who sends her apologies.

Johnson, in his final months as Mayor of London, is undecided about which side to back in the upcoming EU Referendum. He looks for inspiration not only from his dinner guests, but from imaginary incarnations of previous Prime Ministers – Winston Churchill (Weir), Margaret Thatcher and, surprisingly, Tony Blair (Wallers). Steve Nallon was the voice of Thatcher’s puppet on Spitting Image and it is a delight to see him reprising the role on stage, resplendent in a bright blue outfit.

The second act jumps forward to 31 March 2029, the tenth anniversary of the United Kingdom not leaving the European Union. Johnson, still an MP, is about to reverse the Trump career trajectory by taking over from Lord Sugar as the boss on The Apprentice, but he is nervous that he will be incapable of firing anyone. Brexit did eventually happen, the country has survived a disastrous Corbyn-Sinn Fein coalition Government, Dominic Raab is installed in Downing Street, Chelsea Clinton occupies the White House, Michael Gove has joined the clergy and, least likely of all, England had won the 2022 World Cup.

Will our hero at last get the call, in Churchillian fashion, to save the nation in its new darkest hour? If so, he will have to contain his “inner Bill Clinton” and champion, you guessed it, the United Kingdom’s re-entry into the European Union.

Director Lotte Wakeham’s production is sharply acted, blending caricature and real life deftly. The writer’s cynical, but probably correct, assertion is that, driven by lust for power, politics of pragmatism will always defeat politics of conviction. We await the next instalment in the Johnson saga. The play is scheduled to run until 8 June, but a month is a long time in politics and it would come as no surprise if Maitland is called in for re-writes even before that date arrives.

Performance date: 13 May 2019

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

Writer: Dale Wasserman      Music: Mitch Leigh      Lyrics: Joe Darion      Director: Lonny Price

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The lines that distinguish grand opera from musical theatre can often become blurred and the producing team of Michael Linnit and Michael Grade do little to make them clearer. Man of La Mancha, the fifth in what has become an annual series of collaborations with English National Opera, is a 1965 Tony Award winning Broadway musical with a touch of Bizet, staged in an opera house and headlined by an American comedy actor and an Australian-born soprano. The mix is nothing if not intriguing.

The show begins with 16th/17th Century writer Miguel de Cervantes being thrown into a dungeon, pending trial by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow inmates, murderers, thieves, etc, decide to put the newcomer on trial themselves and, in his defence, Cervantes writes a play which is performed by himself and other prisoners. Cervantes becomes the gallant knight Don Quixote who, along with his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, rides off on a quest to fight injustice, tilt at windmills and chase impossible dreams.

This play within a play narrative structure is far more intricate than is typical for Broadway musicals and there are times when the intelligence of Dale Wasserman’s book and Joe Darion’s lyrics add further complexity when simplicity is needed, Composer Mitch Leigh has an ear for catchy melodies and his Spanish flavoured score offers a lot more than just one hit song.

There are few suggestions that this production is “semi-staged”. It is fully costumed and the orchestra is consigned to the pit, leaving the cavernous stage open. James Noone’s gloomy design has one spectacular feature – a wide metal staircase that descends from above to the dungeon whenever contact with the outside world is being made.

This musical is not sung through, long spoken scenes giving it a stop-start feel and, when the show stops, much gets lost in the vast auditorium. This type of large scale production, destined for a limited run, inevitably places constraints on a director. Largely, Lonny Price sticks to a conventional approach, leaving himself little scope for adding touches of comic invention which could have livened up duller patches.

As Cervantes/Quixote, Kelsey Grammar is valiant and ridiculous in exactly the right measures, but he is not known for being a great singer and, when he launches into the show’s iconic song, The Impossible Dream, a cloud of dread blankets the audience. However, he has previous experience in musicals and he attacks the song with gusto worthy of Quixote, never striving to reach the unreachable high notes, but relying instead on forceful delivery and magnetic stage presence to sell it.

Danielle de Niese is superbly tempestuous as Aldonza, the put upon and brutally abused peasant girl who Quixote envisions to be the gracious Lady Dulcinea, and, of course, she sings with glorious clarity. Peter Polycarpou is a sprightly Sancho Panza and a doleful Nichola Lyndhurst is the self-styled “governor” of the prisoners and an innkeeper. The entire company is made up of 30 actors, singers and dancers (choreographed by Rebecca Howell) and David White conducts a 30-piece orchestra, his new orchestrations giving prominence to the brass section.

Price’s production contains several memorable highlights, but, in all, it is hit and miss. Unseen in London for half a century, Man of La Mancha has assumed legendary status here, which, on this evidence, may not be entirely merited.

Performance date: 30 April 2019

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

Writer: Ben Alderton      Director: Roland Reynolds

⭐️

If anyone seeks to prove that British politics are broken, surely there is enough evidence in the present day, without having to delve into history to find more. However, writer Ben Alderton seems to think otherwise with his new play, a crude and obvious satire that is four years past its sell-by date.

The play’s title is a quote from former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband and the words are repeated here by Ned Contraband (Ben Hood), fictional leader of the Red Party, to mask his perceived inadequacies. His opponent, Prime Minister and leader of the Blue Party is David Carter (Alderton himself), an arrogant toff. Carter treats his obsequious deputy, Nick Clog (James Bryant) in a  way that would draw outrage from the RSPCA, but quakes before his party’s election campaign manager, Glyniss, played by Annie Tyson in the manner of a dominatrix. Both party leaders are portrayed as imbeciles, Carter wants to be hip and Contraband needs a break from his hippy guru, Will (Michael Edwards). Alderton’s point is that, when the electorate has to choose between two idiots, its decision will rest solely on how they present themselves.

Director Roland Reynolds’ production has the feel of a student revue, packed with juvenile gags, most of which misfire. Alderton introduces two relatively serious characters as observers of and commentators on the mayhem. Patrick (Mikhail Sen) is a consultant brought in to advise the Blues on election strategy and thought a genius when he sparks the idea of harnessing the power of social media. Sharon Slaughter (Cassandra Hercules) is a relentlessly aggressive adviser to the Reds, convinced from the outset that Contraband is destined for failure.

With further names such as George Oblong, Nigel Garage and Jeremy *unt being bandied around, it seems reasonable to ask why Alderton thought it necessary to disguise the characters at all. On further reflection, he might have realised that a better way to dodge litigation could have been to make the facts underlying the satire more accurate. For example is it credible that the leader of the Lib/Dems would have participated in Tory party strategy meetings for the 2015 General Election? We have great traditions of caricaturing politicians, the art lying in accentuating and magnifying real traits and real events. Too much of what we see here is stale and, politically or in any other sense, simply incorrect.

With the real figures behind the key characters in this farce consigned long ago to either obscurity or Facebook, we ask what is the point of it and then Alderton gives us an answer. He jettisons the jokes and offers up a long scene that plays like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Momentum group. A white-bearded man named Corbz (Edward Halsted) appears in the guise of the Grim Reaper and the now disillusioned  Patrick launches into a diatribe against the toffs and the privileged who dominate politics. Give the young a chance, they agree, settling on “for the many and not the few” as their slogan. Bearing in mind that the Parliamentary constituency in which The Park Theatre is located is Islington North, could this be a case of preaching to the already converted?

Performance date: 26 April 2019

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

Writer: Louis de Bernières      Adaptor: Rona Munro      Director: Melly Still

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Setting a fictional romance against the backdrop of real events in Greece during World War II, Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a worldwide hit. Many thought that the lavish 2001 film version suffered badly from miscasting, but, unencumbered by pressure to place star names in plum roles, Melly Still’s production of Rona Munro’s adaptation for the stage claims a head start over it.

The setting is the Greek island, Cephalonia – “the bridge between the mundane and the immortal”. Munro retains the flavour of de Bernières’ lyrical style and remains broadly faithful to his narrative, charting the perilous tracks of love and war. The play begins with the War seeming far away, but soon Greece is in conflict with Italy and then Germany, leading to an atrocity the memory of which may now have become overshadowed by larger ones.

The island is home to the widower, Dr Iannis (Joseph Long), a dispenser of medicine and wisdom, who lives with his beautiful young daughter, Pelagia, played with spirit and charm by Madison Clare. She flirts playfully with her betrothed, Mandras (Ashley Gayle), while he attempts to loosen the grip of his fiery mother, Drosoula (Eve Polycarpou) before leaving for war. The Italian conquerors arrive, led by their captain, Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni), a dreamily romantic musician who is a misfit in the army. Corelli, billeted at the Iannis house, begins to make music with his mandolin and affection between him and Pelagia blossoms, as sworn enemies become lovers.

It is a story that embraces familiar themes on the futility of war; “hope is a danger, love is treachery” we are told during the turbulence. Still’s direction is fittingly stirring and, only occasionally does she allow the epic to swamp the intimate, thereby obscuring key character details. However, the epic, staged with a company of 15 who play islanders (including animals) and soldiers, is quite something to behold. The casting is perfect, the performances are strong and small touches of humour stand out, such as the arrival of the Italian army, marching while singing Nessun Dorma like half a dozen Pavarottis.

Mayou Trikerioti’s stage design is dominated by a structure that looks at first like a giant rock, but projections and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting transform it to generate images of island paradise, battlefield Hell and natural disaster. Harry Blake’s original music, thrilling in the action sequences and soothing when the island is in relative peace, adds to the spectacle.

Bringing to the stage de Bernières’ curious epilogue seemed bound to be problematic and so it is, but, on the whole, this is powerful storytelling and Still’s production plays as sweetly as Corelli’s treasured instrument.

Performance date: 25 April 2019

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