A Princess Undone (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 27, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Richard Stirling       Director: Jonny Kelly


When she died in 2002, Princess Margaret looked to have completed her slow journey towards becoming a footnote on the pages of British history. However, interest in the Queen’s younger sister has been rekindled by the Netflix series The Crown and now Richard Stirling’s new play takes a further look at what many remember as a sad and unfulfilled figure.

The time is 1993 and the Princess is divorced from “the campest man in Britain”. She has left a long list of alleged lovers in her wake, but the press has now turned its attention to the younger royals and she is yesterday’s news. She occupies her Kensington Palace apartment (sumptuously furnished in Norman Coates’ set design) with other royals as her near neighbours, comforted by a favourite cushion embroidered with the words “it’s not easy being a princess”, sipping Red Grouse and chain-smoking (“down to 10 a day”). She looks out onto the Palace courtyard waiting to see which boyfriend the “Golden Girl” (Diana) will be bringing home tonight.

With her mother and sister out of town, HRH has charged the Queen Mother’s dutiful but sarcastic aide, William (played by the writer himself), to raid his mistress’s drawers and bring to Margaret piles of papers that she believes relate to her personal scandals. The object is to burn them, which it seems actually happened. Perhaps less likely to be true is the arrival of a young interloper (Alexander Knox) seeking to get his hands on the papers, but his appearance lets us see that the Princess’s flirtatious disposition is still active even in her 60’s.

The insatiable appetite of the British public for tittle-tattle about royalty should ensure that Stirling’s gossipy play finds an audience. There is much name-dropping – the Kents complaining about the noise, Diana being ostracised for allowing her boys to dive-bomb Margaret in the Kensington Palace swimming pool and so on. A further reminder of Margaret’s show business links comes when John Bindon (Patrick Toomey) turns up. The press had reported that Bindon, an actor with underworld connections, had been a guest on the Princess’s Caribbean hideaway of Mustique several years earlier and he is now intent on blackmail.

Much of this would be very flimsy stuff indeed were it not for a superb central performance by Felicity Dean, regal and slutty almost in the same instant. This is a woman who remains defiantly arrogant, using bitchiness as a defence mechanism, so caught up in the role that she was born to play that she does not know who she truly is. The daughter of a King, she had been second in line for the throne for over a decade, but now the long downward spiral to insignificance is nearing its end and Dean’s Princess looks lonely and forlorn.

Jonny Kelly’s steady direction keeps us interested for 80 minutes (extended by a 20 minute interval), but the creakiness of Stirling’s plotting cannot be disguised and it feels likely that the play could have worked a great deal better if it had been structured as a monologue for the magnificent Dean to perform.

Performance date: 26 February 2018

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

The Lady With a Dog (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: February 24, 2018 in Theatre

Original Story: Anton Chekhov      Adaptor and director: Mark Giesser


Starting with a short story written by Anton Chekhov in 1899, writer and director Mark Giesser has devised a play about marital infidelity in the mid-1920s that has the feel of Noël Coward. It hovers between the casual frivolity of Private Lives and the fraught, guilt-ridden romance of Still Life (filmed as Brief Encounter).

Oscar Selfridge’s art deco set design dazzles and then baffles. Deck chairs lie around a sunlit balcony, looking out towards a cloudless sky and a calm, dark blue sea. Yes, this is coastal Scotland. If the production’s sense of location falls short, Giulia Scrimieri’s keenly observed costumes at least give it a far more accurate sense of period.

Holidaying North of the Border, separate from their respective spouses, are the prim Anne (Beth Burrows), accompanied by her playful Pomeranian, and debonair ex-army officer Damian (Alan Turkington), a serial seducer. These characters come from the affluent upper middle classes of their era that populated much of Coward’s writing, perhaps passing their time solving cryptic crosswords, playing Golf in the afternoon and Bridge in the evening. Can anyone blame them for spicing things up with a spot of adultery?

Back home in Wiltshire, Anne’s dull, humourless husband Carl (Duncan MacInnes), a bespectacled, pipe smoking soon-to-be Tory MP, is nursing his war wound. In London, Damian’s stern, frumpy wife Elaine (Laura Glover) is looking after the couple’s three children, aware of her husband’s probable antics whenever he is away from home. Neatly, Giesser merges in imaginary conversations between all four characters with actual conversations, allowing them all to reveal more of themselves and their self-obsessiveness.

Essentially, this is a tale about what boring people do when they get bored and Giesser does well to stop his production from itself becoming boring too often. Anne confesses to having “taken a liking to making love beside a moonlit rock pool” but, as with all holiday romances, the question is what will happen when the pair return to their homes. Act II sees Anne and Damian torn between love and duty, but, if we are meant to believe that they are having a torrid affair rather than just a holiday fling, it feels remiss that hardly any passion can be felt on stage.

We may wonder what the agonising in this play has to do with the world almost a century later when social behaviour has changed so radically. Anne could provide an answer when she talks of public expectations of politicians and their wives and we may reflect that news reports almost every day demonstrate the extent to which hypocrisy still abounds. Relevance proves to be less of a problem for the play than length, the short story that provides Geisser’s source material feeling too thin to be stretched out to two hours (including interval). Pleasurable as a great deal of this production is, it is also much too long.

Performance date: 23 February 2018

Photo: Andrew Grieger

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

Foul Pages (Hope Theatre)

Posted: February 24, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Robin Hooper      Director: Matthew Parker


All the World’s a stage in Robin Hooper’s new play, a bawdy romp set in 1603 when a production of As You Like It is being staged to please the newly-crowned King James I/VI. The theatre, it seems, is the centre of everything in this tale of backstage backstabbing, political intrigue and thwarted love, all taking place under the watchful eye of a cuddly canine.

The Countess of Pembroke (Clare Bloomer) is desperate to save her former lover Sir Walter Raleigh from the axe and invites the new King (Tom Vanson) to her country pile, where she keeps dissident French Protestants hidden in the attic. She hopes that a performance of AYLI, which she has “improved” herself, will help her to encourage his leniency. The actors arrive, all of them gay, but it is explained that there were no women around in theatre companies in those days. The Countess’s lusty maid, Peg (Olivia Onyehara), has little chance of getting satisfaction from any of them.

Trouble starts when the King takes a fancy to bit part player Rob (Thomas Bird) and insists that he must play Rosalind instead of the talented and ambitious Alex (Lewis Chandler). The writer, Will (Ian Hallard), succumbs to the King’s request, much to the consternation of his actor brother Ed (Greg Baxter with a broad West Midlands accent) who has rejected Peg’s advances in favour of his pursuit of Rob. Meanwhile, the King’s kilted henchman (Jack Harding) takes a shine to Alex and could prove to be his saviour.

Matthew Parker directs these shenanigans on an often cramped stage with a light touch, throwing in some neat comedy and some oddities. Techno music and strobe lighting during scene changes feel particularly incongruous. It is very unlikely that the vain actors of 1603 would ever have been as generous as the company here by allowing scene after scene to be stolen by a dog. Chop, the Countess’s put-upon mutt, woofing, canoodling and throwing in sarcastic asides in the style of Lily Savage, is a delight and James King’s performance certainly earns at least a biscuit.

When it comes to Elizabethan (or immediately post-Elizabethan) theatre comedies, Tom Stoppard set the bar fairly high with his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, exploring the links between theatre and life with wit and insight. It is no surprise that Hooper’s play falls short in comparison, but still it could have shown more purpose. The writer seems to have little interest in Will himself, who becomes a rather anonymous, incidental figure. Focussing primarily on the thespians’ antics, the play is mildly amusing for its 90 minutes, but, at the end, we are left thinking it to have been much ado about very little at all.

Performance date: 22 February 2018

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

The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Peter Gill      Director: Robert Hastie


Josie Rourke has recently announced an intention to leave her position as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse and, when the time comes to assess the high points of her tenure, Peter Gill could feature strongly. His play Versailles, which premiered here in 2014, may have shown the strains of over-ambition, but its searing final act lingers on in the memory. Now this revival of  The York Realist, first seen at the Royal Court in 2002, proves to be the perfect marriage of play and venue.  The Donmar, better than any other theatre in London, can accentuate subtlety and give power to the understated in intimate human dramas and Robert Hastie’s exquisite production takes full advantage.

Gill writes about irreconcilables – town and country lifestyles. middle class and working class values. The time is the mid-1960s and John (Jonathan Bailey) is up in Yorkshire from London to work as Assistant Director on York’s Mystery Plays. He comments that the countryside is everything that he expected and still nothing at all like what he had expected, probably meaning that most unexpected is George (Ben Batt), a farmer who shows promise as an amateur actor (in the days when actors from working class backgrounds were welcomed into theatre). George is plain-speaking and plain-thinking, finding no time to question or show reticence about his homosexuality, contrasting sharply with townie John’s coy nervousness when being seduced. Interestingly, George has been mirrored recently by the central character in Francis Lee’s wonderful film God’s Own Country, which has a similar setting. Perhaps there is something in the Yorkshire air.

Batt is simply superb. When he realises that what he yearns for most in life is the thing least attainable to him, he turns to the audience, failing to hold back tears and we are all heartbroken. Bailey too shows true passion as the uncomprehending John. Lesley Nicol is touchingly real as George’s dutiful but ailing mother and Katie West gives poignancy to the role of neighbour Doreen, who is prepared to carry out household duties for George, quietly biding her time until the time is right for her. In Peter MacIntosh’s warm farm cottage set the back door is always unlocked for family and friends to wander in, a custom somehow abandoned in cities and there is a sense throughout that everyone knows and accepts the truth about George, but never speaks about it. Beautifully written and impeccably observed, Rourke’s successor in the Donmar hot seat will do well to keep up the standards achieved by this production.

Performance date: 16 February 2018

Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Theatre

Book, music and lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda      Director: Thomas Kail


Hype raises expectations and high expectations frequently result in disappointment. For example, I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman with no expectations on press night at the Royal Court, recommended it to everyone I spoke to when it transferred to the West End and have invariably received the reaction “it wasn’t THAT good”. Hamilton is the most hyped show of the modern era, garlanded with accolades and awards, and, having failed to get tickets on two visits to New York, I am finally crossing paths with it a couple of months into a London run that was greeted with almost unanimous five star reviews. So, can it possibly be THAT good?

I try hard not to be one of those irritating people who knocks anything successful just for the sake of being different, so let me start by emphasising that this is a rock solid five star show, brilliant in concept and execution, informative and hilariously funny. By thinking outside the box, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken the art of musical theatre to another level and there was not a second of it’s 165 minutes that I was not enthralled by his show. It was only when leaving the theatre, as a friend said to me “that is a musical for today”, that I began asking questions. Yes, being a musical for today is a big positive, but will it be a musical for tomorrow? Could suggestions that the Victoria Palace (spectacularly renovated at a cost of around £60million) may never have to look for another show be a little premature?

Alexander Hamilton (c1755-1804) was born out of wedlock on the Caribbean island of Nevis, emigrated to the United States as a young man, became a senior officer fighting for American Independence, was appointed Treasury Secretary in George Washington’s first administration and played a key role in establishing the US Constitution and financial systems. The show’s running theme is that it is throwing light on a prominent figure that history tends to overlook and the pleas by his wife Eliza (Rachelle Ann Go) to put right that wrong are stirring. However, when elements in the show remind us of  Les Miserables, they also expose the fact that Hamilton, a flawed, fallible politician and bureaucrat, is not an iconic hero as was Jean Valjean. Thus, the show’s emotional hook is much weaker and, as a result, I am left wondering how quickly it will fade from the memory.

There are many reasons why I wish that I had seen Miranda’s own performance as Hamilton, among them now being that it would have helped me to make up my mind about the performance of the much younger Jamael Westman in the role. There is no doubt that he is technically excellent, but does he have the maturity and charisma to be fully convincing as the character ages? I have niggling doubts, particularly in scenes when he is onstage alongside Giles Terera, brilliant as Hamilton’s some time rival, some time ally, Aaron Burr. Obioma Ugoala is a commanding Washington, Jason Pennycooke a childlike Thomas Jefferson and, singing the tune that I cannot get out of my head, Michael Jibson’s King George III is bonkers (as indeed was the case).

Finally, a mention for Miranda’s use of rap, a word that I had previously thought needed to be preceded by the letter “c”. Miranda integrated hip-hop into his Tony award winning show In The Heights, which I loved and which was a long running hit on the London fringe, so its reappearance here was not entirely unexpected. However, in the event, it proves to be a revelation. Using rapping as a tool for storytelling, the awkward transitions between spoken word and song that blight many musicals are gone and the pace, rhythm and energy of Thomas Kail’s production never falter. An added bonus is that the cheekiness that comes naturally to rap gives licence for the show to be both respectful to American history and completely irreverent at one and the same time. Hamilton is one helluva ride, but will we still love it tomorrow? Only time can tell.

Performance date: 14 February 2018

Photo:Matthew Murphy

Cyril’s Success (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 6, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Henry J Byron      Director: Hannah Boland Moore


Marking the 150th Anniversary of the building which is now home to the Finborough Theatre, there is a nice feeling of symmetry to this revival of a play also originating from 1868, placing a Victorian drawing room comedy in what could once have been a Victorian drawing room.

Henry J Byron’s Cyril’s Success has not been performed in London since 1890 and such time lapses usually have good reasons. In this instance, one such reason could be that 1890 was around about the time that Oscar Wilde began delivering a similar brand of social comedy, but with considerably larger helpings of wit.

Cyril Cuthbert (Tim Gibson) is a successful playwright who takes for granted and neglects his devoted wife (Isabella Marshall). On their wedding anniversary, he opts for a night out with the boys and asks the cad Major Treherne (Will Kelly) to escort Mrs C to the opera. Encouraged by her man-hating former school teacher, Miss Grannet (a deliciously sour Susan Tracy), Mrs C begins to suspect her husband of infidelity with a divorcee, Mrs Bliss (Allegra Marland). She walks out and, without her support, Cyril’s success rapidly turns to failure.

The plot is as featherlight as that of a comic opera, much of the dialogue is stilted and, for long spells, the play is short on any form of humour. The wonder is that director Hannah Boland Moore polishes it up so well in her handsome production, designed by Daisy Blower. Drawing first rate performances that are only slightly tongue-in-cheek, she does what she can to bring out the gender issues, contrasting the strutting Victorian-era males with the so-called “soft sex”.

As is often the case with Wilde, much of the fun comes from subsidiary characters. Cyril’s friend, the over-eager, lovelorn (and curiously named) Titeboy is played with relish by Lewis Hart and, as his other friend, hardened misogynist Mr Pincher, Stephen Rashbrook has a delightful glint of mischief in his eyes; he is a literary critic who promises Titeboy: “I shall not only review (your book) favourably, I shall read it”. As we know that Pincher and Miss Grannet are polar opposites, we wonder if they can be anything other than a match made in Heaven. In this sort of play, of course not.

When the going gets tedious, consolation comes from knowing that the play will only last for 90 minutes (extended by an unnecessary interval) before we can call for our carriages home. For sure, Cyril’s Success is a dusty old museum piece, but credit is due to Boland Moore and her company for presenting it to us as a rather jolly one.

Performance date: 5 February 2018

Photo: Scott Rylander

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

Ken (The Bunker)

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Terry Johnson      Director: Lisa Spirling


The Bunker has become a warm place of refuge during these cold Winter evenings. Warmth radiates from Terry Johnson’s affectionate remembrance of the rogue East London theatre maker and performer Ken Campbell, who died aged 66 in 2006; warmth also comes from the transformed theatre itself, freshly carpeted throughout, decorated by a multitude of glowing lampshades and by cushions scattered everywhere for the audience’s comfort. Tim Shortall’s design makes us part of a Bohemian artistic community in the 1970s.

Lisa Spirling’s production was first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016. Johnson who has written about several eccentric figures in British comedy in his successful plays, had his first encounter with Ken in 1978. Then a struggling 23-year-old writer and actor, Johnson spoke to Ken on the telephone by chance, displayed his mastery of accents and was told “Jim Broadbent has f***ed off, so you’ve got the part”. What follows is a string of longish anecdotes detailing what, to most of us, would be the nightmare of being anywhere near Ken.

As did Alan Bennett’s in his play about a larger-than-life character from his own past, The Lady in the Van, Johnson puts himself at the centre and plays himself too. He stands behind a lectern, looking and sounding every bit as dull and suburban as he is described in his text. This makes him the perfect straight man to Jeremy Stockwell’s outrageous, tyrannical clown, Ken, first seen wearing a pen-filled sleeveless jacket over a Dennis the Menace jumper.

The stories are “not entirely true” warns Johnson, adding that the least believable are likely to be the truest. The writer’s great skill for shaping jokes serves him better than his gift for delivering them, while Stockwell (who was once directed by the real Ken at the National Theatre), bounces around among the audience like a leprechaun on acid. A fair amount of ad-libbing helps the fun to keep rolling along.

The centrepiece story revolves around a 24-hour-long production in a derelict Odeon cinema for the Edinburgh Festival. Johnson’s play runs for a much more reasonable 90 minutes straight through (Ken “can’t be doing with” intervals). Ken is also seen to be a very mischievous prankster, his attempt to change the name of the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Royal Dickens Company forcing a televised denial from Trevor Nunn. His disrespect for tired traditions and conventions of British theatre and, indeed, British life, continued to the end and his practical joking extended to his own funeral.

As memories of Ken Campbell fade, the question burns as to whether he made any lasting impact on British theatre. Johnson’s play suggests the answer with a neat metaphor, pointing out that you only need to move a tiller by a small fraction for the boat to eventually end up on a different continent. Perhaps the true worth of the unique Ken is still to be evaluated.

Performance date: 29 January 2018

Photo: Robert Day

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