Devisor: Phil Young      Director: PJ Stanley

⭐️⭐️

Phil Young, a one-time associate of Mike Leigh, devised the short play Crystal Clear in 1982 using improvisation techniques. It is hard to see why White Deer Theatre has opted to to revive such a stilted piece now, although not seeing is what it is all about.

The Old Red Lion Theatre has a cosier than usual feel, carpeted and with cushioned seating along all four walls. The whole play takes place in the cluttered flat of Richard (Gareth Kennerley), a picture dealer who is blind in one eye and suffers from type one diabetes. However, Richard’s luck at the beginning of the play is not all bad, as he has not one, but two girlfriends. 

The first to appear is Thomasina (Gillian Dean, whose own sight is severely impaired), a blind woman who needs to be guided around the flat to avoid tripping over the futon and various items, such as a tool box and Richard’s underpants, lying around on the floor. Voices of actors are heard describing movement on behalf of the visually impaired and this gives PJ Stanley’s production an air of worthiness, drawing good will from an audience which roots for the play to become better. It never does so.

Girlfriend number two is the belligerent Jane (Rakhee Sharma) who demands more of Richard’s time and gets furious when she finds an open copy of Penthouse lying around the flat. Suddenly, Richard is struck completely blind while bidding for a painting, causing his life and both relationships to go on a downward spiral. How will he remember where in his flat he has left his cigarettes or how much Scotch is left in the bottle?

In telling us what it is like to lose one’s sight, the play goes no further than stating the obvious and its conclusions are desperately depressing. The production has the forethought to provide an audio commentary for the benefit of the visually impaired, but maybe they would have appreciated notes of optimism and positivity in the play far more.

The actors, most notably Kennerley, perform their roles with intensity, but, repeatedly, they are defeated by some truly dreadful dialogue. Ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that it is not enough for a production to have worthy intentions if the play that it showcases is as dull and lacking credibility as this.

Performance date: 25 July 2019

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

Blues in the Night (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2019 in Theatre

Creator and original director: Sheldon Epps      Director: Susie McKenna

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Not seen in London for 30 years, Sheldon Epps’ anthology of a couple of dozen or so blues songs, some very familiar, many not, gets a sizzling makeover that should lead to someone penning “The Why So Long? Blues”. Denied any running narrative and given only vaguely drawn characters, this revival relies for its success on its sense of time and place, four stellar leading performances and the enduring appeal of songs by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and others.

The setting is a run-down New Orleans hotel, the rooms of which inspire Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues. The Lady (Sharon D Clarke) runs the joint, showing maternal devotion to guests, The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton), but disdain towards The Man (Clive Rowe). The Lady sits in her square room, puffing on cigarettes, while the two females sit in their rooms, also marked as squares, on the opposite side of the stage. There is a feeling of isolation, but also of community.

Robert Jones’ set design makes full use of the Kiln’s deep stage, scattering it with art deco lamps, and Neil Austin’s wonderfully evocative lighting transports us to a place where free-flowing Bourbon can drown an abundance of sorrows. In the hotel lobby, musical director Mark Dickman’s five piece band, plays virtually non-stop. There is no time for spoken words when there are blues to be sung.

“I ain’t gettin’ older, I’m gettin’ better” Clarke declares, hearing no dissent from the audience. The 2019 Olivier Award winner for Caroline, or Change is fitting in this production between Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic and its West End Transfer. Does this phenomenally talented performer ever take a holiday? Hopefully not!

The great skill in Epps’ creation, realised beautifully in Susie McKenna’s revival, is seen in how a compilation of songs about heartbreak, abandonment, loneliness, despair and so on is turned into a feel good entertainment. As performed here, the songs are laments only in part; more importantly, they become celebrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Injections of comedy also contribute greatly, as typified by the lighthearted bickering between The Lady and The Man. As one of Rowe’s ovations is dying down, Clarke growls “I can’t stand it!” adding resentfully “but he sure can sing”.

Running through August, Blues in the Night guarantees a scorching Summer for this part of north west London. The word “blues” has something to do with depression, a condition for which this joyous show is the perfect antidote.

Performance date: 24 July 2019

Photo: Matt Humphrey

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

Games for Lovers (The Vaults)

Posted: July 19, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Ryan Craig       Director: Anthony Banks

⭐️⭐️💫

Poking fun at the mating rituals of the British is an age old pursuit, picked up on by Ryan Craig in this new comedy, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that very little changes over the years. The play devotes itself more to re-working familiar situations than to finding modern perspectives and, coming from a writer who has an impressive record of recent successes, it proves to be a disappointment.

Designer Simon Scullion decorates the traverse stage with geometric shapes in garish colours, giving Anthony Banks’ production a jazzy feel, but not altogether a modern one. We enter a world where twenty somethings make passing references to Tinder and the like, but where snappy chat-up lines at the bar are a great deal more prevalent than anything on Snapchat. Could this be this be 2019 or, perhaps, 1979?

The self-proclaimed master of chat-up techniques is inept Lothario, Darren (aka “Juan”), played with a jaunty swagger by Billy Postlethwaite. He is a dating dinosaur, the sort of man who, 40 years ago, would have been wearing medallions on chains around his neck. Darren sublets a room in his flat to the timid Martha (Evanna Lynch), who is infatuated with a doctor at the hospital where she works. Only rating her a six-and-a-half, Darren takes her in, calculating that her presence in his home will prove less tempting to him than an eight or a nine.

Martha’s friend from school days is PE teacher Logan (Calum Callaghan), who also happens to be friends with Darren and a student of his in the art of chat-up. Logan’s new girlfriend, Jenny (Tessie Orange-Turner) is a website designer with a tendency to get too close to her clients. She is the most modern of the four characters. Her relationship with Logan is threatened by an unsatisfactory love life, which leads to role-playing in which she becomes a Belarusian whore.

At its best, Banks’ production has energy and a dash of wit and, at its worst, it has neither. There is a very slight narrative thread running through, but the show plays out like a series of independent, short comedy sketches of varying quality and what emerges is a quartet of thinly-drawn characters who are going through the motions of coupling for no better reason than it is what they believe they are supposed to do. Romance and emotional connections play virtually no part.

Predictable though it is, much of what goes on is mildly amusing, but the play’s overriding problem is that too little of what is has to say is new.

Performance date: 17 July 2019

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

Fiver (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 7, 2019 in Theatre

Book, music and lyrics: Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Little space at Southwark Playhouse is turning into fertile territory for new British musicals. Just a few weeks after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button emerged as, arguably, the fringe hit of 2019, here comes a refreshing offering from a young team that can already stake a credible claim to becoming the next Rice/Lloyd Webber.

A street busker sings Change Is Bringing Me Down and gets the eponymous note in his jar as a reward. The note is passed on to a homeless person who spends it at a newsagent on scratch cards, before it goes in change to a young man who has just bought a birthday card. The passing of the fiver around its many owners links together a cycle of humorous, romantic and melancholic songs.

The busker is co-writer (along with director and music director Tom Lees), Alex James Ellison, who reappears through the show with his acoustic guitar, like a wandering minstrel. Four highly talented actor/singers – Luke Bayer, Dan Buckley, Aoife Clesham and Hiba Elchikhe – play all the characters in the linked stories, showing remarkable versatility. A four-piece band accompanies the songs.

There are times when the fiver gets forgotten, but, being of the modern plastic variety, it proves durable. The show also takes a long detour with what amounts to a songless revue sketch about a surprise party. What emerges overall is that the real linking theme is about the problems of young people making the transition from childhood to adulthood more than about any form of money. Love, loss, depression, exams, bullying, stalking, the generation gap and becoming parents all feature in a show that often feels like part of a cathartic process to counter the pain of adolescence.

If musicals stand or fall on the quality of their songs, this one definitely stands. Encompassing a variety of musical styles, intelligent lyrics combine with catchy rhythms and lovely melodies throughout the show. The writers’ work, switching effortlessly from light to shade, shows no traces of the kind of bland and predictable pop that has dragged down so many British musicals over the years.

The title invites a five-star review and it is tempting, but the show needs further work to knit all its elements together more tightly. That said, at this stage, lack of polish matters less than freshness and conviction. When creators and performers seem to believe in their material as much as this, audiences have to believe in it too.

Performance date: 5 July 2019

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

The Knot (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: June 22, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and director: Dan Daniel

⭐️⭐️

To tie the knot or untie it? Those are the questions facing the two men in Dan Daniel’s play. One fights the faceless bureaucracy of United Kingdom immigration officialdom to bring his future wife to the country, while the other wrestles with the complexities of our divorce laws. Their plights benefit no one, except, of course, the legal profession.

The play consists of two intercut monologues, with one actor occasionally taking a part in the other’s story and, at one point, the two interact with each other when their characters’ paths cross. We are told that writer/director Daniel based the play “on the lived experience of the actors themselves”. The running time is approximately 90 minutes, but this is stretched out further by an interval (for reasons of heat and comfort” the box office informs).

Aiden (Caolán Dundon) is an Irish actor who has moved to London to find work. He has a holiday romance with an Argentinian girl and comes home to dump his long-time girlfriend  and plan a future via long distance telephone calls. Although the girl from South America is a highly qualified scientist, the United Kingdom authorities refuse her a visa to live here, while Aiden refuses to contemplate moving to Argentina. His greatest achievement as an actor has been to star in a pot noodle advertisement, which, he assures us, pays more than performing in a room above a pub (no hat is passed round).

In the process of answering countless questions from the authorities, Aiden is asked to show that he has the capacity to support his future wife and, as he hasn’t, he takes a job in a call centre where Imran (Aiyaz Ahmed) becomes his boss. Imran is a shy Glaswegian of Pakistani Muslim origin who has already told us that he had married a woman of Indian Sikh origin and moved to London to escape the wrath of both families. Now the marriage has gone wrong and Imran’s wife has been unfaithful. He looks to the painful process of divorce.

The scenes in which the two characters interact suggest that the play would have been made a great deal more involving if we could have seen other characters instead of just hearing about them. As it is, Daniel’s production, performed on a stage that is empty apart from three wooden boxes, feels rather flat, Dundon and Ahmed narrating with clarity, but without exceptional conviction.

We look for universal truths in all this but they are hard to find. The actors ask the audience “are you married”, “are you divorced”, trying to make connections, and then tell us stories that come across as just two out of millions of different ones, padding them with very specific details. They are stories and no more, tied too loosely to common experience to matter much to anyone other than those directly involved.

Performance date: 20 June 2019

Photo: Dan Daniel

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

Composer and lyricist: Adam Guettel      Writer: Craig Lucas      Director: Daniel Evans

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Once upon a time, wealthy Americans could stroll through Italian cities, unhampered by hordes of other tourists, and get swept off their feet by the pick of the lusty locals. The Light in the Piazza harks back to the 1950s, when air travel was established and few could afford it, but the surprise is that this musical version made its debut on Broadway as recently as 2005, winning the Tony Award for Best Score in that year. The only previous production in the United Kingdom was at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in 2009.

The 1962 Hollywood adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel is the sort of film that can crop up on television on a Sunday afternoon and require the use of a small pack of tissues. The plot is filled out with romantic slush, the levels of which might have caused embarrassment to Barbara Cartland, and Adam Guettel’s lush score for this musical rises to the call for unbridled romanticism.

The rich Americans are Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter, Clara, played by former Disney Channel star Dove Cameron, dressed appropriately to resemble a fairy tale princess. Margaret explains that Clara is “younger than her age”, having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child, while Clara stares dreamily at Florence’s statues of naked men and at the handsome young signori on their motor scooters, perhaps connecting the two.

The first to dismount his Lambretta and pursue Clara is Fabrizio, played by Rob Houchen as a novice Romeo, to great comic effect. While Fabrizio is stealing Clara’s heart, Houchen is stealing large chunks of the show. Alex Jennings is gifted the sort of light comedy role in which he always excels, cast as Fabrizio’s father, who, naturally, has an eye for Margaret.

Daniel Evans directs the first half with the lightest of touches, but his production gets slightly bogged down in the second half, when it feels as if everyone is taking it all too seriously. This is certainly more than a concert performance, but the presence of the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, on stage and visible throughout, suggests that the correct description is “semi-staged”. Robert Jones’ set design has the right Florentine feel, but there are no changes to reflect the numerous locations where the action is raking place.

With this orchestra performing in a grand concert hall and a company led by one of the world’s greatest operatic sopranos (Fleming), the clues were there that this was always going to be a show to hear more than one to see. Guettel’s compositions are a strange hybrid of Broadway and 19th/20th Century Italian opera, but this production tilts the balance towards the latter. When Houchen, resembling a slimmed-down Pavarotti, sings Passeggiata fully in Italian, the links to Puccini become clear. Two duets – Say it Somehow (Cameron and Houchen) and Let’s Walk (Fleming and Jennings) – stand out, but the indisputably lovely score does not have enough of the variety that fans of Broadway musicals tend to expect.

It is often the case with semi-staged shows that the expansion of the music to an epic scale can diminish the impact of other elements. Here, Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’s book feel no more than adequate to hold the show together and advance the wafer-thin story, while secondary characters, played skilfully by Marie McLaughlin, Celinde Shoemaker, Malcolm Sinclair, Liam Tamne and others, struggle to break through.

Needless to say, Clara and Fabrizio live happily ever after, or at least until after the final bows. No evening spent listening to beautiful music, played impeccably, and hearing the likes of the magnificent Fleming hitting the high notes can be one wasted. This one, packed with nostalgic charm, certainly isn’t, but the experience feels incomplete and so not of today.

Performance date: 18 June 2019

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

Strange Fruit (Bush Theatre)

Posted: June 19, 2019 in Theatre

Writer Caryl Phillips.     Director: Nancy Medina

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

With news of immigration injustices still fresh in the mind and with the National Theatre’s current adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, having thrown fresh light on them, there is a timely feel to Caryl Phillips’ intense new drama. Set in the 1980s, the play examines how the Marshall family, a woman who emigrated to London from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation and her two sons, have adapted to their new home two decades later. 

“The most important part of knowing where you’re going is knowing where you’re from” claims the older son, Alvin (Tok Stephen), explaining why he and his brother Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) crave to re-connect with their roots in the West Indies and, further back, Africa. The play, which is about identity and belonging, begins with Alvin absent, having gone to meet relatives left behind, at his grandfather’s funeral, and to try and trace news of his estranged father, an international cricketer who had turned to drink.

In a particularly moving scene, the mother, Vivian (Rakie Ayola), recounts to her neighbour, Vernice (Debra Michaels), the racist rejection that she suffered on her arrival in London and tears of disappointment drip from her every word. For all that, her objective had remained to integrate into London life, raising her sons to have steady jobs and become part of the predominantly white community. University drop-out Alvin sees her as “too busy playing white”, while his rebellious brother is “too busy playing black”.

The smouldering anger of Stephen’s Alvin contrasts with the uncontainable fire of Ajayi’s Errol. The younger brother sees everything in terms of race, supporting West Bromwich Albion because they are the only team at that time to have black players. He is a budding revolutionary who plots direct action and treats his pregnant white girlfriend, Shelley (Tilly Steele) as if she is a target for gaining revenge for black suppression.

Running at well over three hours (including an interval), the play is too long, occasionally losing focus and director Nancy Medina does not inject the pace that some stodgy scenes need. However, the production bursts into life with Alvin’s return home, having found himself as rejected and isolated in the Caribbean as his mother had been when she first arrived in London. Ajayi, Ayola and Stephen are all superb as the conflicting visions of their characters collide.

It says much for Phillips’ writing of key scenes and for the acting of them that the play is able to transcend seeming misjudgements in Medina’s production. The Bush Theatre, an adaptable space, is configured in the round, which proves to be of no obvious benefit, but, far worse, Max Johns’ design incorporates what appears to be an empty paddling pool, an irrelevance which impedes the actors’ movement around the stage. Ironically, Phillips describes the play’s setting, the Marshalls’ living room, in meticulous detail in the printed text. There is a mock-up of it in the theatre foyer, but, sadly, the absence of a sense of place inside the theatre itself proves detrimental to the drama. 

The play demonstrates how seeds sown by one generation can result in a bitter harvest for the next and leads us to question how the consequences of historical racism are still being felt 30 years further on. Strange Fruit is slow to ripen and it starts to go off during its dragged out ending, but juicy scenes in the middle make it memorable and more than worthwhile seeing.

Performance date: 17 June 2019

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