The Messiah (The Other Palace)

Posted: December 12, 2018 in Theatre

Writer and director: Patrick Barlow


A recording of Ernest Gold’s theme from the film Exodus features prominently before the lights dim for the beginning of Patrick Barlow’s production of his own play The Messiah. Perhaps this should be taken as a subliminal cue to audiences to heed the music’s title and make their ways out before discovering for themselves just how unfunny what is to follow turns out to be.

40 years ago, the highlight of festive television would have been The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special and the highlight of that show would have been the play what Ernie wrote. In essence, here we have such a play, performed by two comedy actors and complete with a guest singing star, but what might have been a 10-minute sketch is put on a rack and stretched out painfully to two hours, including an interval.

The Morecambe figure is Ronald Breame (John Marquez), a mischievous  clown, dressed in a suit several sizes too small. He acts most of the roles in a Nativity play that is written and produced by the pompous and deluded Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis), dressed like a retired army officer in a brass-buttoned blazer. It took decades for Morecambe and Wise to make their on-screen characters fully-rounded and to perfect their synchronised comic timing, so it comes as no surprise that, in comparison, Marquez and Dennis look like beginners. They try very hard to make the comedy in Barlow’s script work, but they are defeated repeatedly.

The “guest star” is Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Lesley Garrett), who sings arias ranging from Handel to Puccini, without musical accompaniment. Her rendition of Silent Night is exquisite. Designer Francis O’Connor gives the show the correct feel of an incompetent village hall Nativity play, with marble columns in front of a blue curtain that is speckled with gold stars. When the back curtain opens, it reveals a wobbly, cardboard Bethlehem.The design is vaguely Roman, vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely 2,000 years ago and vaguely cheap.

Barlow scored a big hit with his adaptation of The 39 Steps, but this show is more than “just a short tube ride from London’s glittering West End”, as the writer describes The Other Palace. It is particularly disappointing that Barlow relies so heavily on double entendres, Malapropisms and tired, predictable old gags. The programme suggests “Virgin on the Ridiculous” as an alternative title and this would have summed up the level of the humour well.

Even in the season of good will to all, it is difficult to find much good to say about The Messiah. The main consolation is Garrett. She is cast to play what we assume to be a third rate soprano, but, thankfully, this proves to be outside her range. She climaxes with a rousing Hallelujah Chorus and the show ends there. Hallelujah indeed.

Performance date: 11 December 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Anthony Neilson      Director: Alex Sutton


When we see a children’s show that is totally unsuitable for children, somehow we know that it must be Christmas. December 2018 at Southwark Playhouse is ushered in with Anthony Neilson’s 65-minute one-act play, a mix of ingredients that include a Santa’s elf, kids’ toys and glitter along with prostitution, hard drug-taking and bucketsful of ripe expletives. The result is a dizzying cocktail which poses the recurring question “who can this possibly be aimed at?” and never quite provides a satisfactory answer.

Gary (Douggie McMeekin) is separated from his wife and 5-year-old son. He runs Price Breakers, a “back of a lorry” business and, on Christmas Eve, an elf (Dan Starkey) breaks into his warehouse, explaining that he works for the International Gifts Distribution Agency, based in Hartlepool. Following examples such as Miracle on 34th Street and Elf, the story weaves Christmas mythology into real modern living, but its humour lacks consistency and its underlying messages are vague.

First on the scene to help out arrives Gary’s friend Simon (Michael Salami), whose surname is Cowell – “never watch it” is his automatic response to the inevitable comment.  Next comes the sassy hooker Cherry (Unique Spencer), hoping to pick up an Action Man toy for her son, having already paid Gary for it in services rendered. As mayhem ensues, the poor elf, tied up on a chair, becomes frailer and frailer, needing a sniff of the magic dust (a very dubious white powder) that he uses to bring a feeling of Christmas joy into the lives of little children.

Many of Neilson’s jokes hit the spot, others fall on stony ground or get dragged out for too long. There are attempts to inject serious themes or to moralise over Christmas commercialism, but they often feel awkward and out of place. Nonetheless, director Alex Sutton delivers a raucous production that covers up most of the play’s shortcomings and the four actors all succeed in making their characters likeable. If this show is not exactly within the traditional spirit of Christmas, it is certainly spirited.

Performance date: 30 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The Crumple Zone (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: November 27, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Buddy Thomas      Director: Robert McWhir


There is little Christmas cheer for the five characters in Buddy Thomas’s 2001 one-act play The Crumple Zone. Set in the Staten Island apartment shared by three youngish actors, the comic melodrama centres on crumpled love lives that lead to anguish at a time when the surrounding city celebrates the festive season.

Terry (Lucas Livesey) is an off off-off-Broadway actor who makes ends meet by frying pork chops at a local diner while faking excuses to take time off to attend futile auditions. His roommate Sam (Natasha Edwards) is away on a long tour with a show, but her boyfriend of four years, Alex (Nick Brittain) stays on in her room. Alex’s current acting job is playing Santa Claus in a store, but his main preoccupation seems to be a burgeoning romance with Buck (Robbie Capaldi), an office worker at the Staten Island mall. 

The love triangle is predictable and quickly becomes tiresome, but the play stays afloat thanks to Terry, the only character in whom Thomas shows any real interest. At first sight, Terry is a stereotypical, flamboyantly gay New Yorker, bristling with bitchiness and sarcastic wit, but Livesey finds poignancy too. He is an outsider looking in on the relationships of others, still waiting for his own first ex-boyfriend and getting fleeting solace by picking up a married man, Roger (Faros Xenofos) on the ferry. The writer feeds Terry all the play’s best lines and Livesey spits them out with relish. 

Richard Lambert’s cramped set design, which focuses on an orange two-seat sofa and an over-decorated Christmas tree, becomes progressively more cluttered with seasonal paraphernalia as the play proceeds. The claustrophobic feel suits Robert McWhir’s fired-up production, which goes some way towards compensating for the play’s flimsiness and shortage of substance.

Thomas finds just about enough Christmas sparkle to fill an hour and then he allows the play to limp on for a further 15 minutes. Thankfully, mainly due to Livesey’s Terry, the hour turns out to be a reasonably happy one.

Performance date: 26 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Lands (Bush Theatre)

Posted: November 10, 2018 in Theatre

Creator: Antler      Director: Jaz Woodcock-Stewart


“The script is not sacred. It’s a blueprint” we are told in the preface to the printed text for Lands. A printed text normally signals that a work is a play, so anyone thinking of describing this piece as performance art or an extended comedy sketch needs to think again. Its Creator is Antler, a Bush Theatre Associate Artist company.

As a play, it falls into the absurdist genre, in the mould of Ionesco perhaps. More specifically, the sandy-coloured set brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, accepting that the woman here is not half-buried, rather she is trapped, bouncing up and down constantly on a child’s trampoline. Sand, in a proverbial sense, is also what the play’s two characters have their heads buried in, paying only token regard to each other and total disregard to the wider world.

Leah (Leah Brotherhead) is obsessed with a puzzle, describing the picture pieces that she is placing in it in meticulous detail. On the opposite side of the stage, Sophie (Sophie Steer) is bouncing, oblivious to anything that Leah is doing, but paying lip service to having an interest. Leah becomes irritated and asks Sophie to stop bouncing. “I CAN’T get off” Sophie screams. Does Sophie’s bounce represent an obsession or an addiction?Or is it just some nonsense that represents nothing at all? Many have asked that last question about Beckett too.

Director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s production really needs more pace and the script (or that part of it that is used) feels short on verbal wit. That said, the physical comedy that results from the increasingly adversarial relationship between the too protagonists is often very funny. It feels as if the cheery Leah and the solemn Sophie have only their bizarre preoccupations standing between themselves and simultaneous nervous breakdown.

The play comes closest to revealing a serious subtext when Leah rants a long list of things that she doesn’t care about, beginning with “the boy on the beach…refugees on the boats…detention centres…”. She is in fact chastising the audience for allowing life’s trivia to blur a wider vision. Planned to run for 80 minutes (it actually exceeded that by 10 minutes at the press performance), the production is much too long, but it is put together neatly, it has likeable performances and, yes, it also has bounce.

Performance date: 8 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Romeo and Juliet (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: November 7, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Erica Whyman


In an age of polarised views and deep social divisions, most of us will have little problem in relating to the premise that underpins William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the divide that director Erica Whyman most strives to bridge in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, first seen in Stratford upon Avon, is that between old Verona and new London.

At the start, the Montagues and the Capulets are seen as rival street gangs, with hordes of threatening youths filling the stage. The excitement is fuelled by music composed by Sophie Cotton and movement directed by Ayse Tashkiran, and there follows a vivid and vigorous production in which no one ever walks around the stage if it is possible for them to run. 

Whyman builds her bridge by blending the traditional harmoniously with the innovative and finding romance and modern relevance without over-stretching to achieve either. In so doing, her version of the play retains all the key elements of classic productions, but it also shines a light on the futility of 21st Century tribalism and lays out bare the senselessness of the teenage knife crime which now plagues London and other cities.

Bally Gill is a wonderful Romeo, playing the ill-fated lover as the dreamy-eyed joker in the Montague pack and drawing every ounce of humour from the Bard’s words. He is matched by Karen Fishwick’s utterly beguiling Juliet who becomes an innocent 14-year-old with a glint of mischief in her eyes, willingly swept off her feet by Romeo’s charm. The scene in which Capulet, Juliet’s father (a ferocious Michael Hodgson) uses brutal means to insist that she marries Paris (Afolabi Alli) is harrowing, but it hits another modern chord by turning the spotlight onto domestic abuse and forced marriage.

Tom Piper’s adaptable design leaves the stage as open as possible, deploying a large hollow box, which provides an elevated level for the famous balcony scene. Romeo and Juliet spend their final moments together at the same spot, now raised above the squabbling families below them. As the play gets darker towards its conclusion, so the stage darkens and Charles Balfour’s subtle lighting design picks out the key characters.

Other gems among the performances include Ishia Bennison’s devoted Nurse, who exudes natural warmth and good humour. Andrew French is an unusually forceful Friar Laurence, at times displaying the fervour of a Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Josephine stands out as a gender-changed Mercutio, hyper-active and perpetually shadow boxing. Whyman’s production runs through the play briskly in 165 minutes (including interval) without sacrificing any of the poetry in the text and without sagging.

Of course, most of us will know beforehand that this play does not allow blissful romance to triumph over squalid reality, but, on this occasion, when the confirmation comes, it still brings tears to the eyes.

Performance date: 6 November 2018

Photo: Topher McGrillis

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

A Pupil (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 6, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jesse Briton            Director: Jessica Daniels


Can greatness be taught? A Pupil, Jesse Briton’s new 90-minute one-act play, an all-female four-hander, poses that question, asking also whether talent can thrive without discipline and whether discipline, in turn, will suffocate talent.

Ye is a gifted violinist of Chinese origin, who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car crash, but it becomes clear that her severe depression is more crippling than her physical injuries. She barely makes ends meet by tutoring and Simona, the teenage daughter of a Russian billionaire, who is alienated from all around her, is brought to Ye to be prepared for entry exams for the Royal Conservatoire.

Lucy Sheen’s Ye exudes gloom and defeat, fiercely refusing all help to bring her back to a full life. She can pass down her own philosophy and teach her pupil to express her inner self through her instrument, but she recognises that this may achieve only self-fulfilment and not tangible success. The shambolic Ye is contrasted by Carolyn Backhouse’s confident Phyllida, vastly inferior to her as a violinist when they were students together, but now a prominent figure at the Conservatoire.

As Simona, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, wearing school uniform and with a long pig tail, overdoes the petulant brat act just a little, but she shows great skills with the violin, playing classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Melanie Marshall,           playing Mary, Ye’s gospel-singing, persistently interfering landlady, is delightfully comic, bringing welcome relief to what could have been a wearying drama.

Jessica Daniels’ in-the-round production is as highly-strung as any of the dozen or so violins hanging above the stage in Jessica Staton’s simple design. Briton poses intriguing questions regarding the teaching of skills in music (or indeed any other field of the arts), but, when she puts the anti-convention arguments into the mouth of a character who is mentally ill, it is sometimes difficult to decide if the case being made has real validity or is just a dramatic catalyst.

At the beginning, A Pupil looks set to turn into a drama of mutual redemption and, as such, there feels to be a threat that it could be undone by its predictability. However, the more that the play veers away from that well-trodden path, the more engaging it becomes. Perhaps trying too hard to avoid the obvious, Briton reaches an uncertain conclusion, but still this is an accomplished, if not entirely convincing, work of theatre.

Performance date: 5 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Honour (Park Theatre)

Posted: October 31, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Joanna Murray-Smith      Director: Paul Robinson


Honour, Australian writer Joanne Murray-Smith’s incisive study of a marriage break-up, has worn well. Its focus on gender roles perhaps comes through with greater clarity in 2018 than when it received its United Kingdom premiere at the National Theatre in 2003 and casual references in this version to blogs, bitcoins and Love Island, hardly seem needed to stress its modernity.

George (Henry Goodman) is an award-winning journalist, still admired and successful even if the decline of print media is threatening him. His wife, Honor (Imogen Stubbs) is also a talented writer, but none of her works has been published for 20 years. The play begins with them appearing to be the perfect middle-aged, middle-class couple, married for 32 years and with a daughter, Sophie (Natalie Simpson) studying at Cambridge.

The arrival of aspiring 29-year-old writer, Claudia (Katie Brayben) changes everything. She inspires George and re-awakens his passion for living, lifting him out of the tired sameness of his routine, conventional existence. He professes that he still loves Honor, but it is love without passion; he loves her as a wife, but, at this stage in his life, he feels that he does not need a wife. Honor’s life is shattered, as she is effectively traded in for a newer model

The play is about Honor and honour. Murray-Smith finds heaps of sympathy for the deserted wife, but, more to the point, she also blames her for choosing to sacrifice her own career in order to take second place behind her husband. If the writer cannot bring it upon herself to exonerate the seemingly dishonourable George, she at least helps us to understand his behaviour. When Claudia challenges him to explain why “the heart” takes precedence over tenderness, justice, loyalty and history, she asks the question which is central to the play.

Goodman’s George is an egotistical unacknowledged misogynist, a silver fox who is circling his prey and prepared to abandon his den for her. However, Brayben’s cleverly-nuanced performance makes Claudia an ambitious and uncannily self-aware modern woman, to the point of being callous, and she quickly overturns perceptions of who is hunter and who is prey. The abandoned Honor is a sad and isolated figure, but Stubbs gives her enough steel to reinforce the writer’s advocacy of female independence.

Paul Robinson’s intelligent, superbly-acted production is staged in-the-round, with a couple of rows of seating positioned at what is normally the rear of the Park 200’s stage. Liz Cooke’s design uses only an arc of overhead lights and several moveable blocks, but emotional performances more than compensate for its sterility.  All the actors seem to know the extent to which their characters are ridiculous and this brings out the acerbic wit in Murray-Smith’s writing strongly. This revival shows Honour to be a very up-to-date 15-year-old play.

Performance date: 30 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: