Call Me Madam (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Posted: September 15, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon

Music and lyrics: Irving Berlin

Book: Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse

Director: Mark Giesser


The Summer of 2021 has seen glorious revivals of Broadway musicals from the 1930s and 40s in London and Chichester; now it is time to dip into the 50s, albeit on a much smaller pub theatre scale. Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in 1950 and served as a star vehicle for the legendary Ethel Merman, running for a respectable couple of years.

The show, a frivolous musical comedy, tells the story of Sally Adams, a Washington socialite who is dispatched by the Truman administration to become United States Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. Her direct, unconventional approach ruffles feathers and disrupts the political status quo, while she also forms an unlikely romantic attachment with the soon-to-be Lichtenburg Prime Minister, Cosmo Constantine.

As Sally, the undiplomatic diplomat, Rosemary Ash is brash and vulgar, storming every scene in much the same manner as we imagine Merman would have done. Constantine, suave and slippery, is played by Richard Gibson, previously best known as Herr Flick in the television sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo. He must be happy that there is no need for him to master a new accent. 

Daniel Breakwell as the American aide Kenneth Gibson and Beth Burrows as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg make affecting sweethearts and bring a touch of youth to proceedings, much needed as they are supported by what could possibly be one of the oldest chorus lines in musical theatre history.

Aimee Leigh’s choreography shows little imagination and it rarely  shakes off the flavour of a Derby and Joan tea dance. Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with a geriatric musical. Why should nimble young things have a monopoly on flinging themselves around the stage? However, this production’s problem lies not so much with the company; more it is the show itself that creaks.

The book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse feels tired and stilted and the passing of seven decades has not been kind to the many “topical” jokes. The most enduring of Berlin’s songs have proved to be It’s a Lovely Day Today and You’re Just in Love, both duets, but, sadly, many of the rest serve as a reminder that even the greatest can sometimes have a bad day at the piano.

Director Mark Giesser’s production seems to acknowledge the show’s problems and then accentuate them, but it does not go far enough in the direction of tongue-in-cheek to enter “so bad it’s good” territory, which is, perhaps, a pity. The spark of invention needed to jolt the show into forming a connection with a 21st Century audience never materialises. Call Me Madam is a show which many musical theatre enthusiasts will have heard of, but not seen; they should grab this chance, because it could be a very long time before it comes round again.

Performance date: 14 September 2021

Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Writer: Winsome Pinnock

Director: Miranda Cromwell


Look very closely at one of JMW Turner’s famous seascapes and what do you see? Probably at least one sailing ship which could be a slave ship and, if so, are there any signs of the suffering below its decks? Winsome Pinnock’s play, first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, is built around the premise that inconvenient truths are usually hidden away in history as in art and that slavery is an extremely inconvenient truth.

Lou (Kiza Deen) is a successful black actor working on the set of a film about Turner. She becomes obsessed by her roots and is determined that scenes in the film relating to her character’s back story must not be cut from the script. The play then leaps back to 1840, shortly after the abolition of slavery in Great Britain and its territories. We find Turner embarking on one of his voyages and black communities struggling to come to terms with freedom in a world in which slavery thrives elsewhere and new forms of enslavement are emerging.

As both Turner in the past and the actor playing him in the present, Paul Bradley is a grouchy figure, paying little regard to anything outside his work. Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose stand out in a strong company, giving impassioned performances as Thomas and Lucy, a 19th Century couple who are determined to build a solid family life in an uncertain world. The couple’s daughter, Jess (Kudzai Sitima) is bouncy and optimistic, but, in the 21st Century, a young artist, Billie (Anthony Aje) lacks confidence in his own talent, perhaps reflecting the writer’s frustration that some who are young, gifted and black are still held back by ghosts from the past.

The play is hugely ambitious in setting out to condense events covering almost 200 years into little more than two hours of human drama. The split narrative is both friend and foe to the writer; it allows her to give clear modern relevance to depictions of atrocities from the past, but repeated jumps backwards and forwards in time make the play feel episodic and dilute the intensity of the stories that are unfolding. Occasionally, Pinnock’s approach seems scattershot; she misses some of her targets, but, when she hits, she does so with shattering force.

Performed in the round in the National’s small Dorfman Theatre, director  Miranda Cromwell’s production creates powerful, lingering images to match those in the writing. Haunting music composed by Femi Temowo adds flavour and depth. One minor criticism is that the doubling up of roles in overdone; for example, Cathy Tyson and Matthew Seadon-Young have four roles each, which makes it very difficult to identify with (or indeed identify) their characters.

Setting aside its flaws, Rockets and Blue Lights shines brightly and brings into sharp focus aspects of our past and present that are too often hidden away in dark corners.

Performance date: 2 September 2021

Cinderella (Gillian Lynne Theatre)

Posted: August 26, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Composer: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Book: Emerald Fennell

Lyrics: David Zippel

Director: Laurence Connor


Once upon a time Andrew Lloyd Webber would conjure up hit musicals from Argentine politics, feline poems and steam engines. Now, following in the footsteps of Rossini, Massenet, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and many others on stage and screen, he offers his take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella. It would seem that the composer’s days of thinking outside the box may be over.

Happily, the basic story has seemingly infinite scope for variations and the key to making any new version interesting lies with the twists in the tale. The news that this show’s book is the work of Emerald Fennell,  recent Oscar winner for the screenplay of Promising Young Woman, is a more than promising start. If Stephen Sondheim’sInto the Woods could opt for a not so charming Prince, then why not have a “bad” Cinders at the heart of Fennell’s version? It is a twist that pays dividends over and over, as the delightful Carrie Hope Fletcher puts a mischievous twinkle into the title character’s eyes and a spring into her naughty step.

The twists don’t stop with a bad heroine. Shockingly, Prince Charming is dead before the show starts and then…well no more spoilers. The setting is Belleville, somewhere in the region of France, at some time around the 18th Century. A prank by Cinderella has led to the town losing its appeal and its cash, so the Queen decrees that the only way to revive fortunes will be a royal wedding. The new heir is the wimpish Prince Sebastian, who also happens to be the only friend in the world of the put-upon, bedraggled serving girl Cinderella, and he must find a suitable bride at a hastily organised ball.

Clear messages about anti-bullying, body image and female empowerment are planted throughout the show without ever weighing things down. Fennell’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics merge together seamlessly, setting a tone that is irreverent and spiky but still unapologetically romantic. Fresh, modern and preserving the full flavour of the traditional fairy tale, this is a show with appeal for all age groups.

As Sebastian, relative newcomer Ivano Turco is outstanding, nailing the glorious showstopper Only You, Lonely You in the first act and disco dancing like John Travolta in the second. Rebecca Trehearn, looking like Marie Antoinette, plays the Queen as a tart made good. Both she and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s uncaring stepmother borrow from pantomime with their over-the-top villainesses and their duet, I Know You, is an absolute hoot. Gloria Onitiri also contributes a wicked cameo as the Godmother, in modern terms a sort of make-over consultant for Cinders.

Directing a company of over 30,  Laurence Connor stages the show in slick and spectacular style. The whole of the stalls revolves for the ball, repeating a trick seen in this same theatre for the original production of Cats. Gabriella Tylesova’s period costumes and fast changing sets are breathtaking and JoAnn M Hunter’s exuberant choreography brings in exciting modern touches.

Plaudits go to all involved, but it is Lloyd Webber’s name that goes above the title and this emphatic return to form must be seen as a personal triumph for him. Blending the expected ravishing melodies with reminders of his rock ’n’ roll roots, this is perhaps the composer’s most varied and fully-rounded score since Phantom. The show may not live happily ever after, but it should stick around for a year or two at very least.

Performance date: 25 August 2021

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Rita Kalnejais

Director: Chirolles Khalil


Two young people hide in a loft while an authoritarian regime controls the streets outside and a war rages all around. Rita Kalnejais’ play, first performed in 2017, is set in 1944, during the final days of the German occupation of France, but Kabul in 2021 keeps springing to mind. Contrasting the intimacy of human relationships with the epic nature of world history, the writer makes it clear that the title which she has given to the play is rich with irony.

Elodie is a French teenager, prone to bouts of epilepsy, but romantic and optimistic. She lives in Chartres, south-west of Paris, and while swimming at a lake, she meets Otto, a German soldier of similar age. He boasts of having been part of a firing squad and shapes his actions in accordance with “what Mister Hitler would do”. His beautiful future involves the formation of a pure Aryan race and he believes that his departure to take part in the inevitable conquest of England is imminent. He is unaware that the Normandy landings have already taken place.

Freddie Wise’s Otto is a naive, sensitive youth, contradicting the horrific catalogue of beliefs and deeds recounted in the play. We are always asked to pity Otto more than despise him and, seen here, the character demonstrates the ease with which ordinary people can be indoctrinated with evil. Elodie, played with wide-eyed innocence by Katie Eldred, is excited at setting off on a new adventure and she loves Otto, blind to what he tells her about himself. Taunting each other and having pillow fights, we see a couple of children on the cusp of sexual awakening and on the threshold of encountering the harsh realities of life.

Kalnejais’ 70-minute one-act play is a coming of age tale with many bitter twists. Some of the writing is too heavily laden with obvious symbolism, but there is an overriding sense of the powerlessness of individuals to live their private lives closeted from cataclysmic events unfolding in the wider world. Director Chirolles Khalil’s production is at its best in quiet scenes of tenderness between the teens, faring less well when moments of high drama are over emphasised.

Performed with great confidence throughout by Eldred and Wise, This Beautiful Future reminds us that the grand sweep of history hides many small, human stories and that the future rarely includes learning lessons from the past.

Performance date: 20 August 2021

Constellations (Vaudeville Theatre)

Posted: August 13, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Michael Longhurst


Hot on the heels of the announcement that an all-male couple will be competing on Strictly Comes Dancing, comes an all-male pairing in Nick Payne’s stellar romance Constellations. It’s 2021, so, hopefully, the reaction to both items of news will be “so what?”, leaving us to get on with enjoying the performances and seeing what the judges make of them.

Michael Longhurst, now Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, directed the world premiere production of Payne’s play at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, later transferring it to the West End and Broadway. The play, a two-hander, is being revived by Longhurst in four versions, of which this is one, with diverse pairs of actors taking on the roles, pointing to the universality of the writer’s themes.

Beekeeper Rodney and quantum cosmologist Manuel (Marianne in other versions) meet at a barbecue, then at a ballroom dancing class, forming an on/off relationship. This means both on and off, because Payne deploys the trick of repeating short scenes over and over to produce different resolutions, thereby answering the “what if?” question. This stuttering progression plays out something like Love Story meets Groundhog Day, supporting Manuel’s theory that everything in the cosmos has pre-determined and varying outcomes. Happily, the scientific gobbledygook is short and sweet, as the writer is  concerned with speaking to the heart more than to the brain

Omari Douglas, fresh from success in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, plays Manuel as a vulnerable drama queen and Payne’s sharp, stinging dialogue suits his style perfectly. Russell Tovey’s “boring” Roland is the ideal foil for him and the actors’ timing of the quick fire comedy exchanges is impeccable. When the play is funny, this pair makes it very funny and, when it stops being funny, there appears a tender emotional bond  which is truly touching.

Running for barely 70 minutes, the play, already a modern classic, does not outstay its welcome. Longhurst’s production looks much the same as it did in 2012, with Tom Scutt’s set, consisting of a multitude of helium-filled balloons, illuminated by Lee Curran’s warm and glowing lighting design. Although the triumph of this version has more to do with chemistry than cosmology, Douglas and Tovey team up so naturally that it could have been written in the stars.

Performance date: 12 August 2019

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Tom Wells

Director: Tessa Walker


For anyone who has not yet booked their 2021 staycation, it could be useful to note that Kilnsea is a small town on the East Yorkshire coast, near Hull. It is the home town of writer Tom Wells and the setting for his new play Big Big Sky which paints a picture of it as a place of tranquility, in harmony with the natural world. Even rare birds think it worthwhile to stop by here twice a year as they migrate north or south.

The 90-minute one-act play is the antithesis of an action thriller. It is almost entirely character-driven and it contradicts its title by being about small small things. This is exemplified in director Tessa Walker’s carefully detailed production by characters fussily repositioning furniture and moving signage on and off set, over and over again. Little things mean a lot in Kilnsea, small cogs make the bigger wheels turn.

The action (or perhaps inaction) unfolds in a seaside café, represented by designer Bob Bailey’s beautifully observed pale blue set. It is run by Angie and the much younger Lauren, whose dad, Dennis hangs around at the end of each day in the hope of picking up free meals from leftovers. It is end of season and the café will soon close for Winter, maybe never to reopen in the face of competition from a new development in the town centre.

The arrival of Ed, a geeky ornithologist and conservationist from the Black Country, shakes things up a little. He settles in to enjoy vegan brownies with mint tea, takes a job as “Tern Warden” and quickly forms a romantic relationship with Lauren. All four characters are grieving: Dennis for his wife, Lauren and Ed for their mothers and Angie for a lost child. Continuity of life in all its forms is a strong theme running through Wells’ writing.

The play’s men are clumsy, tactless beasts and its women pull the strings that make things work. Sam Newton grasps at every opportunity to exploit the comic potential of Ed’s nervous awkwardness, while Matt Sutton gives Dennis the air of a lost soul, always striving to do well, but invariably putting his foot in it. In contrast, Jennifer Daley’s Angie is a rock, overcoming personal loss to spread warmth to others, and Jessica Jolleys’ vibrant and youthfully optimistic Lauren is a pillar of common sense.

Lovingly written and performed, Wells’ heartwarming play brings an oasis of calm to the bustle of North London. It reminds us that simple things matter most, where there is loss there is renewal and where there is life there is hope.

Performance date: 5 September 2021

Swimming (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: August 5, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Alex Bower

Director: Kayla Feldman


Alex Bower’s one-act play Swimming made its first appearance at the White Bear Theatre in 2019 and now, after our enforced break, the producers have judged that it’s safe for us to go back in the water, socially distanced of course.

Dan (George Jones) is in a seemingly stable relationship with Marianne (Rose Dickson), but his eye is caught by Sam (Dominic Rawson), a student and amateur swimming instructor, while he is lounging at the local lido. Soon, the boys are practicing their strokes together, both in the pool and in the privacy of Sam’s flat, and Dan abruptly dumps Marianne over the telephone. Meanwhile, Dan’s best mate Ant (Andy Sellers), a bed maker who would like to lie in one of them with Marianne, reminds Dan of the joys of laddish sexist banter and stag nights in Ibiza.

Director Kayla Feldman’s in-the-round production, performed on a bare stage, wavers between light comedy and anguished drama. In summary, Dan wants Sam (or maybe Marianne or maybe both), Sam just wants to know, Marianne wants to heal her wounded pride and Ant wants Dan back in the hetero fold but out of the way so that he can move in on Marianne. The characters congregate to discuss Dan’s bisexuality coyly, attempting to sort out the mess that it has made of their tranquil, ordinary lives.

In looking at things from four different perspectives Bowers seems to be taking on too much to cram into a mere 70 minutes, leading to all the characters feeling underwritten. A quartet of capable young actors struggles to flesh them out and to make the chemistry between them believable. This is a particular problem in the case of Dan, the central figure. He is unable to open out to others, or probably to himself and the writer can find no way to reveal his inner emotions to the audience. As a result, we neither understand him nor empathise with him.

Swimming skims over the surface of a large pool of complex human problems without diving down to find their heart. The play is amiable enough, but it never really moves far from the shallow end.

Performance date: 4 August 2021

John & Jen (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 3, 2021 in Theatre

Writers: Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald

Director: Guy Retallack


Broadway writer composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa has for long been undervalues in this, his country of birth. Recent UK productions of Big Fish and The Addams Family have gone some way towards rectifying this, but here we have an opportunity to appraise his first show from 1993, written in collaboration with Tom Greenwald. This updated version is receiving its world premiere and has fresh orchestrations by Lippa and Jason Robert Brown.

The revised version spans a period of around 35 years, from the mid-1980s to the present day. It begins with seven-year-old Jen picking up her new-born baby brother John, promising to care for and protect him throughout his life. Together, they embark on a journey from childhood playfulness and teenage rebellion through to the harsh realities of responsible adulthood. The show is a two-hander, a chamber musical, performed here with a four-piece band under the direction of Chris Ma.

Designer Natalie Johnson sets the show in a shed (or perhaps an attic) filled with boxes of toys and other children’s paraphernalia. The siblings belong to an all-American family, perhaps typical in our perceptions, but the writers make clear that there are cracks in this idyllic structure. Lurking in the background is a controlling, violent father, despised by Jen, but eventually worshiped and treated as a role model by John. The father’s presence never comes to the fore, but is suggested subtly as, for example, when Santa Claus fails to leave presents on Christmas Eve.

Director Guy Retallack’s production blends frivolous humour with powerful emotional clout. However strong the material, an intimate show like this can only succeed if the performances are good and here they are superb.  Rachel Tucker, recently triumphant in the West End production of Come from Away, takes Jen’s girlish playfulness, teenage angst and doting motherhood all comfortably in her stride and belts out the show’s finale in a style that almost literally brings the small house down. Lewis Cornay, youthful in appearance, but always playing John as still younger, commands the stage with impressive authority.

The story is about love and loss, standing still and moving forwards, holding on and letting go. In examining American family life, the show touches on themes that Lippa was to return to in Big Fish, but the story is also told against the backdrop of turbulent history, incorporating political debates in song between the hawkish John and pacifist Jen. 

Almost sung through, the show includes several songs of stand alone quality, all done full justice by Tucker and Cornay. However, the factor that ultimately makes John & Jen so special is the skill with which it tells a multi-layered human story in musical form. In so doing, it frequently brings tears to the eyes.  

Performance date: 2 August 2021

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director Sam Yates


Tennessee Williams was a dramatist who had a gift for finding intriguing titles to entice audiences into his plays, but it would seem that inspiration eventually deserted him. The title of this play, which received its World Premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 1967, at very least gives a factually accurate description of what to expect, but, once the action gets underway, basic expectations are defied over and over again.

Director Sam Yates’ revival continues Hampstead’s season of looking back at its landmark productions and it is being performed to socially distanced audiences throughout its run. The Two Character Play is, in fact, a play within a play, being staged when an audience is waiting and only two actors have turned up “due to the eccentricities of the time”. Disruption of theatre for such a reason is something that we can easily relate to right now.

The actors are siblings, Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla). Hampstead’s large stage is opened out to its full expanse as the pair arrives, designer Rosanna Vize having littered it with an upright piano, props, part-built scenery and all the inanimate ingredients that go to make theatre. Playfully, Felice dons a wig and, through the characters, Williams begins to explore parallels between life and art, reality and fantasy. The writer seems to be bringing to theatre the mysterious and introspective style associated with Federico Fellini in 1960s cinema; this is emphasised further in Yates’ production, when songs from Italy and other European countries are scattered throughout.

O’Flynn and Varla, thespians playing thespians, throw themselves full-heartedly into their roles, knowing that the structure of the piece gives them licence to overact at will. The fictional actors’ relationship is fragile but mutually dependant, mirroring the relationship between the characters in the play which they perform. For that play, they assume distinct Louisiana accents, playing two people trapped inside a house and incapable of leaving it.

The play within a play is an undisguised parody of Williams’ own greatest successes, building in themes of dysfunctional family ties, confinement and social taboos. Much of the playwright’s early work is thought to reflect his personal frustrations and turmoil, so it is enlightening to learn that, by the mid-60s, he could have been looking back in amusement. However, a thin line separates self-mockery from self-indulgence and Williams crosses it often, allowing scenes to drift off at tangents or drag on for far too long.

Yates’ production is suitably shambolic, but inventive, using tricks of modern theatre to enhance the writer’s themes. For all its many flaws and its often irritating quirkiness, the work possesses a magnetic pull that keeps drawing us back to it and our enduring fascination with Williams himself is the obvious explanation for this. The play is undoubtedly an oddity, but it is an engaging one.

Performance date: 26 July 2021

Writer: Bryony Lavery

Director: Tinuke Craig


Theatre is always a collaborative effort. To some, it is also a matter of life and death. Bryony Lavery’s comedy Last Easter embraces these ideas and more in a story about a group of theatre folk who join forces as one of them becomes stricken by serious illness and embark on a sort of pilgrimage to Lourdes.

When June, a lighting designer, is diagnosed with stage two cancer, her friends gather round and panic: Leah is a props maker whose alter ego is a garish glove puppet; Gash, is a drag performer with an unsuitable joke for every occasion; and Joy is an actor who over-dramatises everything, particularly after a tipple or two. Their road trip to Southwest France does not come from religious conviction, but more from their desperation to try anything, with the bonus of enjoying a pleasant Easter break.

Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s June is the calm at the eye of a storm, stoically facing mortality, but willing to go along with her friends’ whims on the way. She endorses the writer’s point that those surrounding victims of illness can often be hit harder than the sufferers themselves. Leah (Jodie Jacobs) and Joy (Ellie Piercy) are panicky, while also preoccupied with their own developing relationship.

The main joy of this production is Peter Caulfield’s flamboyant and irrepressibly slutty Gash. With an armoury of dreadful jokes and classic songs from the 1940s, he brightens up scene after scene and keeps the play on course whenever it threatens to hit the rocks.

Just as Gash spits out one-line gags as a defence against hard realities, Lavery uses comedy to sweeten the bitter pills of the weighty themes of terminal illness, faith and euthanasia. Sometimes it feels as if she is buying cheap laughs to prevent the play from sinking and sometimes it feels as if the constant barrage of wisecracks is working contrary to the writer’s wish to draw us in emotionally. However, overall, the tricky balancing act is tackled with confidence.

Director Tinuke Craig gives her simply-stages in-the-round production pace and energy. The performance space at the Orange Tree is condensed even further by socially distanced seating and, for most of the 90-minute (plus interval) running time, the actors have just four swivelling chairs to work with, but Craig puts this to advantage in emphasising the closeness of the characters to each other. The outcome is only mildly challenging and thought-provoking, but consistently entertaining.

Performance date: 7 July 2021