Writer: Bryony Lavery

Director: Tinuke Craig

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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

Staircase (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 26, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Charles Dyer

Director: Tricia Thorns

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In 1966, London was swinging like a pendulum, England’s men’s football team was winning the World Cup and, amid all the celebrations and gaiety, homosexual relationships continued to be illegal. Charles Dyer’s comedy Staircase, depicting the lives of a middle-aged gay male couple, was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in that year and, by the time that a 1969 film version appeared, starring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, our repressive laws had already begun to change. If for no other reason, director Tricia Thorns’ revival of the play is worthwhile for giving us a snapshot of a significant period in LGBTQ+ history.

Dyer, who died in January 2021, treads carefully, seemingly not wanting to offend the sensitivities of the age, nor incur the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain, with anything too explicit. The loud and clear message, perhaps novel in the ‘60s, is that these two guys are just like everyone else, doing no harm to anyone, and the writer asks us to laugh at their dilemmas without sniggering at them. Curiously, Dyer gives one of the characters his own name and he calls the other Harry C Leeds, an anagram thereof. The couple, both hairdressers, have lived together for 20 years, but both now have problems. Charlie is awaiting a court appearance for donning drag and sitting on a man’s knee in a pub and Harry is losing his hair.

John Sackville’s Charlie is preening and theatrical, bordering on hysterical. He taunts Paul Rider’s Harry cruelly as he fusses around like a mother hen, his head swathed in bandages to hide his increasing baldness. They bitch, they bicker and there is little more to the play than that. Occasionally the writing steers the characters too close to camp stereotypes like Julian and Sandy, popular in the ‘60s from the Round the Horne radio show, but Sackville and Rider give them more depth, always reassuring us that their relationship is built on mutual affection. Of course, there are no verbal or physical demonstrations of such affection and what may go on after the pair climb the staircase together we are left to guess.

All the action takes place in the South London Barber’s shop where the couple work, which is realised sharply in Alex Marker’s set design. The play carries a deep sense of lives unfulfilled because of unjust laws and social hostility. Charlie and Harry both talk of pretending to be married (to women), both are, to some extent, in denial of the truth to each other and, more poignantly, to themselves.

Seen outside the context in which it was written and first performed, Staircase is not much of a play. It is rooted firmly in a specific time and place and Thorns can do little to give it modern relevance. However, her production boasts two first rate performances which at least breathe some fresh life into it.

Performance date: 25 June 2021

Happy Days (Riverside Studios)

Posted: June 18, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Samuel Beckett

Director: Trevor Nunn

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Poor old Winnie doesn’t have much of a life. Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is here again and we find her stuck deeper and deeper in a mound of earth, but this time at the Riverside Studios, perilously close to a stretch of the Thames that is tidal.

Director Trevor Nunn’s revival marks the 60th anniversary of Beckett’s absurdist comedy of frightfully cheerful despair. The play is a near monologue, interrupted only by a few words and grunts from Willie (Simon Wolfe), Winnie’s henpecked husband who is entrenched in another hole nearby. He sleeps through most of his wife’s ramblings as she recounts the mundanities of life and reflects on the unstoppable passage of time. Every day, it seems, replicates the one that preceded it, all of them, in the end, “happy”.

Lisa Dwan’s Winnie is often a comic delight, shielding herself from the sun with a flimsy parasol and worrying that she could “put on flesh” and make her home too tight. However, overall, Dwan seems less concerned with milking the comedy than with mining the tragedy, her every syllable dripping with a sense of rage at her character’s hopelessness. Her performance makes Nunn’s interpretation of the play much darker than many that have gone before, but, blessed with a rich Irish accent, she could well have found the voice that was in the playwright’s head when he wrote Winnie’s words.

Robert Jones’ set design, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, makes a stunning impact. Extending to the width of two wide cinema screens, it resembles the view from an aeroplane window, Winnie’s mound looking like a fluffy cloud in the foreground. Thanks too to sound designer Johnny Edwards for ringing bells loud enough to rouse the whole of West London.

Trying to make too much sense of this play can ruin it, but it seems reasonable to assume that the mound of earth is a metaphor for constraints placed around everyday existences. Certainly the ravages of ageing are inescapable, but we can think of other constraints in terms of, for example, political oppression, social immobility or, given a topical slant, lockdown. Beckett is not specific and Nunn offers few pointers. The writer is not telling us, individually or collectively, to acquiesce like Winnie nor to put on a happy face and shrug our shoulders, rather he is gently mocking our tendency to do so.

At 90 minutes plus interval, the play’s central premise is stretched about as far as it could go. It will not be to everyone’s taste, maybe not even to Winnie’s, although she would take the glass half full approach to it. In fairness, we should see it in at least the same light.

Performance date: 17 June 2021

Book: Craig Lucas

Music: Daniel Messé

Lyrics: Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé

Director: Michael Fentiman

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The statue of Eros guards over the entrance to London’s Criterion Theatre and gives a fitting clue to the air of the show that has now taken up residence inside. Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s hit 2001 film Amélie, this musical is set in a romanticised version of modern Paris which bears only a passing resemblance to the reality lying little more than a couple of hours away on Eurostar.

French-themed musicals do not have a bad track record and this one was seen briefly in London before the pandemic. The show is now making its West End debut at a theatre in which alternate rows of seating have been removed, such a blessing for those of us who are slightly long of leg. Drinks can also be delivered to seats, perhaps giving us a preview of luxury theatregoing in the future. 

There are no Eiffel Towers to be seen in Madeleine Girling’s split-level set design which eschews the obvious, but, when lit dimly, looks more like a crypt at Notre Dame than a vibrant cityscape and seems somewhat at odds with the feel good mood of the show.

Amélie Poulain (Audrey Bisson) is a shy young lady from a dysfunctional family. Her father has more time for a garden gnome than for her. After being whisked quickly through her backstory, we find Amélie in 1997, a waitress in a Parisian restaurant. She is a naive fantasist who embarks on a plan to perform extraordinary acts of kindness to others. Various stories intertwine, leading to multiple redemptions and Amélie herself moves along a path towards romance with Nino (Chris Jared).

Leading the company, Bisson and Jared are excellent, but this is an ensemble piece for 16 multi-tasking actors/singers/musicians. Under Michael Fentiman’s direction, they harmonise in every sense and generate a compelling sense of community. Fentiman’s witty and inventive production flows, seemingly effortlessly and thrives on group energy.

The original film was most notable for its quirky humour, which is captured well in Craig Lucas’ book and the song lyrics by Nathan Tysen and composer Daniel Messé. There is a folksy feel to Messé’s lovely music, but there is also much variety, ranging from lilting love ballads to comic parodies. A surprise appearance by Elton John (Caolan McCarthy) brings the first half to a rousing climax.

Thick French accents assumed by the entire company seem unnecessary and they impair the clarity of the storytelling. However, it becomes impossible to dwell long on minor flaws while being swept away by the endearing performances and ravishing melodies to be seen and heard here. This is one enchanted evening which make

Performance date: 2 June 2021

Writer: Alfred Fagon

Director: Dawn Walton

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Continuing its much interrupted season of revivals of plays which premiered here, Hampstead Theatre looks back to 1975. At first glance, the chilling title of Alfred Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man suggests that the play’s themes could have been echoed in recent events. As it transpires, the title is misleading, but it still leads to the key questions for a modern audience: how much in society has changed in almost half a century and how much of what is depicted in the drama is still relevant today?

The time is 1973, the place is a smart flat in Chelsea’s Kings Road, owned by Shakie, a confident entrepreneur who struts around proudly in his flowery shirt and bell-bottom trousers. His age is 18. He is visited by ex-girlfriend Jackie, who comes from a comfortable middle class background and is the mother of a child fathered by Shakie when he was 15. She is 30. Third to arrive is Stumpie, Shakie’s friend who has plans to make it big in the music business and favours a revolutionary approach to righting historical injustices. He is 21. All three characters are British and black.

The ages and other character details are emphasised, but they play little part in the play’s slight narrative and it is unclear why Fagon thinks them so important. It seems illogical that Shakie could have achieved his status in life so young, but Nickcolia King-N’da gives him refreshing youthfulness even when his dialogue belies his demeanour. Natalie Simpson struggles to find depth in the underwritten role of Jackie, but there is a real sense of danger in Toyin Omari-Kinch’s Stumpie as he paces around the stage smouldering with aggression..

The first half of the play resembles early John Osborne, with characters debating the crumbling British nation and empire while taking the drama nowhere. Like Osborne, Fagon gives little prominence to feminist causes. We gather that racism is at the root of all the characters’ grievances and we observe that even the victims of racism are themselves driven into becoming racists. 

The second half is altogether more dark and surreal. Shakie, having been let down in a business deal, turns to Stumpie’s radical ideas and the two men imprison the hapless Jackie with a view to selling her into slavery. Director Dawn Walton’s production is impassioned, but it does not unravel all the play’s mysteries and, when the three characters stand in a line and address the audience directly, it looks as if Walton is signalling defeat. 

As to modern relevance, perhaps racism is like the coronavirus in that it mutates repeatedly over time. If so, the 1973 variant is different from the 2021 one and there may not be too much point in putting it under a microscope for further study. The only certainties are that both variants are equally destructive and equally difficult to conquer.

Fagon’s writing is confrontational, confusing and often contradictory. If he gave 1975 audiences a severe jolt, the shock factor today, when at least the issues that he raises are discussed more openly, could be diminished. Still this remains a challenging play and, because it points to no prospect of resolution, it is also a deeply depressing one.

Performance date: 3 June 2021

Writer: Harold Pinter Director: Alice Hamilton

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It has been a long wait. Celebrating its 60th birthday, Hampstead Theatre announced a “greatest hits” season early in 2020, starting with a revival of Harold Pinter’s one-act classic The Dumb Waiter, which received its world premiere here in 1960. When the play was staged in the West End only last year, it formed half of a double bill and eyebrows were raised at the prospect of paying normal ticket prices for a mere 55 minutes of theatre (with no interval, but plenty of Pinter pauses). Now, many months later, the production finally hits the stage in a socially distanced environment and such reservations feel irrelevant. All that theatre-starved audiences should want to do is rejoice at its arrival.

The play could be viewed as a sinister comedy or an absurdist thriller and even its title has alternative interpretations. Ben and Gus are hit men despatched by an unseen Mr Big to a derelict building in Birmingham to await the arrival of their mysterious next victim. It is a Friday and Aston Villa may or may not be playing at home to Spurs that weekend. In James Perkins’ bleak design, single beds stand on opposite sides of their undecorated room. They taunt each other with inconsequential small talk and then, with a rumble and thud, a dumb waiter appears from what is, apparently, a cafeteria above. It contains orders for meals and drinks, but the gas supply to the kitchen has been cut off and the ingredients needed to fulfil the orders are not available. They respond by sending up what little they can find – a packet of crisps, a stale Eccles cake, a half-pint of sour milk, etc.

An air of foreboding hangs over Alice Hamilton’s production from the outset. Tempo is key, as the famous pauses are followed by rat-a-tat exchanges and then more silence. Questions are asked and left unanswered and clues are placed alluding to the play’s ultimate twist, which, itself, asks yet more questions. The writer is teasing the audience continuously; nothing is what it seems, nor as, in a real world, it could possibly be. The uncertainty keeps us as much on edge as it does Ben and Gus.

Alec Newman’s Ben has the marks of seniority, but his assertiveness is undermined by suggestions of deep unease; we suspect that he knows more than he is letting on either to Gus or to us. Shane Zaza’s Gus is, at times, a gormless junior, but his failure to obtain answers to the most obvious questions drives him into an anguished frenzy. Together, the actors master the tones and rhythms of Pinter’s multi-layered dialogue to near perfection..

Inevitably, this play has been likened to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but Hamilton’s meticulously detailed revival shows us that Pinter’s early work has a clear identity of its own. This short, sharp theatrical treat has been well worth waiting for.

Performance date: 8 December 2020

Writer and composer: Jason Robert Brown. Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

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It isn’t five years since Southwark Playhouse last staged a musical, but it certainly feels like it. The theatre has pulled out all the stops to get this revival of Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite 2001 chamber piece, The Last Five Years, safely in front of an audience in its larger studio space. Perspex screens separate seats, rows of which have been removed to allow for the correct social distancing and drinks from the bar are served by waitresses before the show begins. Some innovations born out of this sad period may not be so bad.

The show could be seen as a song cycle more than a fully formed musical, but director Jonathan O’Boyle strives to defy this description with a lively, inventive production, choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane. In Lee Newby’s design, a shiny grand piano sits on a revolving stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience (all wearing face coverings of course). The ambience suggests a Manhattan cocktail lounge or, perhaps, a setting for Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

Cathy, a struggling actress begins with the song Still Hurting, expressing anger and pain at the break-up go her five-year relationship with Jamie, a promising novelist. She goes on to tell the story of the relationship in reverse chronological order. In this respect, Brown is emulating Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, realising that foreknowledge of the conclusion lends added poignancy to each of the lyrics. However, in alternating songs, Jamie tells the same story from beginning to end, suggesting to us that, even when they are at their happiest, the couple are never moving along the same track.

Molly Lynch brings out Cathy’s lack of confidenceand self-deprecating humour, giving strong renditions of several comic songs. Oli Higginson’s Jamie is full of nervous energy and far more intense; his frustration at Cathy’s lack of interest in his career is palpable, but he is anything bar a cad and his eventual infidelity looks to be a last resort. The structure of the show gives few opportunities to assess the chemistry between the pair, but, at the point where the two versions of the story intersect, they sit together at the piano and duet The Next Ten Minutes, giving us a glimpse of what might have been.

The show, which runs for just over 90 minutes without an interval, is almost entirely sung through, with only a short reading from Jamie’s novel being spoken. Brown’s music, in varied modern styles, matches the tone of each lyric perfectly, demonstrating why he has often been referred to as the new Sondheim. Musical director and arranger George Dyer does a fine job, leading a five-piece band, which includes the piano, played in turns by the two multi-talented actors.

Some could view the shortage of direct interaction between the two characters as the show’s weakness, but Brown’s intention is to illustrate the universally recognisable dichotomy of lives being lived together and, in parallel, apart. In O’Boyle’s production, Cathy and Jamie sing to someone who is not actually there, but always hovering in the background. They appear bound together uneasily inside a fragile bubble, but the truth is that they are, in similar fashion to those of us watching them, encased in separate perspex boxes.

Performance date: 5 October 2020

Photo: Pamela Raith

Rose (Hope Mill Theatre Online)

Posted: September 10, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Martin Sherman.     Director: Scott Le Crass

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Premiering in 1999, Rose was Martin Sherman’s parting gift to the 20th Century, seemingly presented with a card reading “Good Riddance”. He could not have known what was to follow.

In common with Bent, Sherman’s most famous work, Nazi atrocities during World War II lie at the heart of the drama, but the focus of this story is wider. The play is a monologue, which had Olympia Dukakis playing the title role in the original National Theatre production. Here, in a recording made during lockdown of a one-off production by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Maureen Lipman is Rose, an 80-year-old naturalised American Jewish woman, reflecting with some confusion on the turbulent events of her life.

Rose was born and raised in a small village in a part of Russia that is now Ukraine, accepting antisemitic persecution as one of life’s norms. As a teenager, she followed her older brother to Poland, ending up in the Warsaw ghetto and the city’s sewers for most of the war. Afterwards, she fled to safety in the promised land of Palestine, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Our initial reaction could be to think how lucky Rose had been to survive, but Sherman always questions this and the deep bitterness underlying Lipman’s portrayal tells us otherwise.

Director Scott Le Crass’s production is a strange hybrid, possibly unique to modern times. Lipman sits in a pool of light on the darkened stage of an empty theatre and we wonder to whom she could be talking. This is not an intimate chat with each individual viewer, as in the style of the recent Talking Heads series on television, and it is not a recording of a proper theatre production in which the actor would be performing to a live audience and drawing response therefrom. Some visual effects are added, but they feel out of place and add very little.

Leaving these reservations aside, Rose is all about vivid storytelling, both in the writing and the performance. Lipman is mesmerising. Her Rose is, at first glance, desensitised by the traumas in her life, but subtle smiles and grimaces reveal her true emotions, which turn to outright rage when talking of the role of the British Government, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in particular, in trying to stem the flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine.

Sherman’s writing is full of dark humour, brought out with natural ease by Lipman. Rose’s recollections are hazy as she questions whether a childhood event actually happened or was it a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Similarly, she questions whether her memories of a perilous Mediterranean crossing is from “that Paul Newman movie” (Exodus). Sherman is making the serious point that 20th Century history has become blurred by dramas, adventures and even musicals. He wants to remind us that, inside horrors of enormous proportions lie millions of real individual human tragedies.

Rose is alert to the many ironies in her life as a pawn in a bigger game. She recalls how Hitler and Stalin were friends at one moment and at war the next and how Jews fleeing Poland after the war saw Germany as a safe haven. Her accounts of crossing the Mediterranean will jolt audiences seeing the play more than 20 years after it premiered into seeing a further irony, that of refugees from the Middle East making the same crossing, but in the opposite direction.

Writer: Michael Burdette      Music and lyrics: Robert Scott and Brendan Cull      Director: Brendan Cull

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When Nora Ephron’s film Sleepless in Seattle was released in 1993, the words “social” and “distancing” would not have been commonly linked together, but its story of a romance between Sam and Annie, separated by the width of a continent, makes it perfect to be adapted for the stage in 2020. This is, as the old song goes, “a fine romance with no kisses”.

Sam is a young widower who moves with Jonah, his 10-year-old son, to live on a houseboat in Seattle. Annie is a journalist with the Baltimore Sun who is almost engaged, but having her doubts. When Jonah calls a late night nationwide radio phone-in show to find a new wife for his dad, Annie takes an interest from a professional and a personal viewpoint and Jonah is left to organise a rendezvous on top of the Empire State Building in New York City on St Valentine’s Day.

It took all the charisma that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could muster to save the film from drowning in syrup, but Jay McGuiness (who seems to specialise in stepping into Hanks’ roles) and Kimberley Walsh have ample charm of their own. There are few surprises in Michael Burdette’s book. His biggest problem is that everyone knows where the story is going and he needs the songs, which slot in neatly, to help it on its way.

The large Troubadour is adapted for social distancing. Strangely, when we see a more than half empty auditorium for a musical, our brains are programmed to tell us that we are watching a flop. It takes time to adjust, but there are big compensations. Theatregoers have long yearned for audiences that dare not cough and now they are here. Long may they remain.

Director Morgan Young’s big, slick production cuts no corners. A company of 18 fills the stage, backed by a 12-piece orchestra and Morgan Large’s colourful set designs, using a central revolve, enable swift transitions and allow for scenes in different locations to be on stage simultaneously. Standing out in supporting roles are Tania Mathurin as Annie’s friend Becky, Harriet Thorpe as her mother, Daniel Casey as her almost fiancé Walter, Corey English as Sam’s friend Rob and Charlie Bull as his would be girlfriend Victoria, the lady with the excruciating laugh. The key role of the precocious Jonah is being shared by Theo Collis, Mikey Colville, Jobe Hart and Jack Reynolds.

Simple tunes and lyrics mark the songs by Robert Scott and Brandan Cull. Their style is a cross between 1940s jazz and modern pop. They are catchy enough, but lack a showstopper until Walsh belts out Things I Didn’t Do, after which the show stops, albeit  for the interval. In the second act, a duet for Rob and Jonah, Now or Never, goes one better and earns an encore. Overall, perhaps the songs could have been sold with greater energy if the show had more dancing. The shortage thereof is particularly disappointing when the company is led by a Strictly… winner.

Sleepless… is sentimental and predictable; it manipulates our emotions shamelessly, but resistance proves to be futile. It may not be saying much, but, without a doubt, this is the best musical in town right now

Performance date: 1 September 2020

Beat the Devil (Bridge Theatre)

Posted: September 1, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: David Hare      Director: Nicholas Hytner

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David Hare’s most recent play for theatre, I’m Not Running, looked at British left wing politics as they had been many years earlier and, when it opened at the National Theatre in October 2018, he stood accused of living in a time warp. Not so on this occasion. Beat the Devil is as much 2020 as it can get.

The play, a 50-minute monologue, is built around the writer’s own battle with Covid-19 in March and April this year. In theory, the “devil” in the title is the virus, but the actual devil that Hare seems to have in mind is the Conservative Government and what should have been a fascinating insight into the physical and mental impact of the illness disintegrates into a rambling and unconvincing politically motivated rant. 

The play starts promisingly with Hare telling of the first symptoms – the taste of sewage in his mouth, crippling lethargy – and continues at intervals with details of how he and his wife Nicole (Farhi) cope day-to-day. In between and possibly for more than 50% of the running time, Hare launches into a fierce assault on politicians (always emphasising that they are Conservative politicians), including some particularly venomous personal attacks on named individuals. Nothing that Hare says is factually inaccurate, but inconvenient truths are overlooked and his writing is short on wit and fresh detail, while being flavoured strongly with the benefit of hindsight.

We can stay at home and be lectured by Emily Maitliss on government shortcomings, so do we really want to go to a theatre for much of the same? If the answer is “yes”, it is probably because we are so starved of theatre at this time that we would go to see anything and, if we are going to receive a lecture, there could be no one better to deliver it than Ralph Fiennes. His sardonic style and natural gift for comedy paper over many of the play’s cracks and help him to find humour even in parts of the play where Hare has placed none. Director Nicholas Hytner’s production has a large desk centre stage, helping to generate the feel of an academic presentation.

The management and front of house staff at the Bridge Theatre must be congratulated for getting this production, the first in a season of monologues, up and running. Capacity is reduced to under a third of normal, with seats configured as pairs or singles well spaced out, and audiences are made to feel safe at all times.

The theatre is not the BBC and there is no necessity for balance, but, in this case, the omission of key facts that do not support the writer’s case undermines the credibility of everything that he has to say. Beat the Devil is a huge disappointment, but, thankfully, Hare lives to write another play and, hopefully, to return to better form.

Performance date: 31 August 2020