Photo: Nick Rutter

Writers: Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan

Director: James Grieve


After Thatcher, Blair, Trump and others, former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi becomes the latest larger-than-life political figure to receive the dubious accolade of having a satirical musical devoted to him. The self proclaimed “Jesus Christ of politicians” proves to be a rich source for mockery.

Berlusconi’s vision of himself as a modern day Emperor Tiberius is endorsed by Lucy Osborne’s set design, which resembles a section of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. The “Friends, Romans and countrymen…” speech could have been delivered to the masses from steps such as these. Adversely, the set occasionally restricts movement in director James Grieve’s otherwise rousing production, ably performed by a company of ten and accompanied by a band of five.

The show is entirely sung through, with writers Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan adopting a musical style that could possibly be influenced by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. As a whole, the songs are remarkably strong and several are near-showstoppers. The wit in the lyrics matches the catchiness of the tunes. However, the songs appear as a succession of stand alone numbers, thereby giving the show the feel of a series of revue sketches, rather than that of a flowing piece of storytelling.

Sebastien Torkia storms the stage as the title character, exuding all the charisma, ruthlessness and arrogance which led to his success and then his downfall. The narrative is framed by Berlusconi’s 2012 trial for tax fraud. He decides to devise an opera (he insists that it is not a musical) to tell his life story and use in his defence. 

Moulded by a strong mother (Susan Fay), the young Berlusconi sets sail as a cruise ship entertainer, before turning to property development and then becoming a media tycoon. He enters politics and eventually becomes Prime Minister of Italy, Throughout, he is mired in controversy and scandal, mostly surrounding his shady business dealings and his serial womanising. Emma Hatton gives a moving performance as Veronica, his long-suffering second wife.

As a satire, the show really takes off at the beginning of the second act. A night club dancing scene demonstrates the thin line between politics and show business and then Berlusconi joins a bare chested Vladimir Putin (Gavin Wilkinson) in a chilling, but hilarious duet which resembles a bizarre courting ritual. This is followed by an equally hilarious sequence in which Berlusconi strides the world stage with the heads of G7 leaders popping up from below him. It all leads to a finale in which, the chorus faces the audience and sings “Be Careful Who You Vote For”. The audience response could well be “Si”.

If Berlusconi… brings little in the way of enlightenment, it compensates in the form of entertainment, offering more than enough highlights to fill an evening. However, the show needs tightening up in many places. It goes on for far too long, in common perhaps with the political career of the man himself.

Performance date: 29 March 2023

Killing the Cat (Riverside Studios)

Posted: March 24, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Danny Kaan

Book and lyrics: Warner Brown

Music: Joshua Schmidt

Director: Jenny Easton


The theory that opposites attract is put to the test rigorously in Killing the Cat, a new chamber musical that is receiving its world premiere at Riverside Studios prior to a planned Off-Broadway run. 

Madalena Alberto plays Maggie, an American scientist and author who has written a best seller which offers scientific explanations for all life’s mysteries. In order to escape from the widespread recognition that her newly found fame has brought, her friend Sheila (Kluana Saunders) invites her to join her on a holiday to Livorno. There she meets and falls for Luke (Tim Rogers), a man whose devout religious beliefs contradict everything that Maggie advocates.

This central relationship is mirrored by that of another holidaying couple, Heather (Molly Lynch), who is passionate about the romantic poets and all forms of art and the culturally sceptical Connor (Joaquin Pedro Valdes). Amid Italian sunshine and beauty, the scene is set for profound debates which set reason against religion, rationality against romance and cold logic against instinctive emotions.

Throughout a first act of flirtations and deceptions, it seems that the plot of a routine romcom could be hiding beneath the blanket of the show’s highbrow pretensions, struggling to come out. Lee Newby’s all white set design represents stone steps leading up to Roman arches and the three hard-working band members are also dressed all in white, as if it is camouflage. All this gives a sterile look to director Jenny Easton’s production, which always errs in the direction of taking itself too seriously.

The supremacy of discord over harmony in the narrative is reflected in Joshua Schmidt’s score, which is sung and played with great confidence. Generally, the music is easy on the ears, but stand-out moments of the type on which hit musicals thrive do not materialise.

It is brave and ambitious to attempt to incorporate philosophical arguments into the book and lyrics of a musical, but Warns Brown rises to the challenge admirably. It is deep into the second act before the quest to find the meaning of life becomes too weighty and we stop caring about the characters and their relationships. Eventually, there is a temptation to shout to everyone on stage: “lighten up a bit”.

Killing the Cat is a curiosity. At this stage, it feels like a work in progress and more time should help it to blend together its elements more smoothly. Eight more lives remain.

Performance date: 22 March 2023

Writer: Enda Walsh

Director: Nicky Allpress


Irish writer Enda Walsh’s 2006 play, The Walworth Farce, seems like an ideal choice to open Southwark Playhouse’s brand new venue, which is located near to where Walworth Road meets the Elephant and Castle roundabout. So, is this revival well worth seeing or is it just a white elephant?

The new venue is just a few hundred metres from the existing Southwark Playhouse (Borough) which continues to operate. It is tucked in neatly at the foot of a modern tower block. Its two-level interior could be a model for freshly-painted industrial chic, sending a loud and clear message that thrills on the stage will always take precedence over frills in the foyer.

The play is set inside an upper level flat in a Walworth Road high rise, occupied by Dinny (Dan Skinner), an expatriate Irishman who has switched careers from painter and decorator to brain surgeon. Designed by Anisha Fields, the shabby flat has three adjacent doors, giving rise to the promise of a farce in the Feydeau mould, but this never materialises and, instead, we get a nonsensical romp in the Ionesco mould, with a few uniquely Irish twists.

Dinny shares the flat with his two sons, Sean (Emmet Byrne) and Blake (Killian Coyle), both distraught after the funeral of “Mammy” who had been killed by a dead horse. Dinny goes into a rage when it becomes apparent that the wrong shopping bag has been brought back from Tesco’s, ruining his expectations for an evening meal after a long day of brain surgery and setting off a train of fierce family conflicts.

As the three men re-enact scenes from their past in Cork, they assume different characters, switch in and out of drag. At this point, the production is something like an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys on speed and the skills of the actors in ploughing through it is admirable, but the one feat that they are not able to pull off is to make any of their antics funny. It takes the arrival, with the correct shopping bag, of Tesco checkout agent, Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks), to raise some laughs and that is largely because the character is recognisable and believable.

Underlying the mayhem, the writer is exploring the pull of roots and family ties in shaping characters’ lives, familiar territory for many forms of comedy. It would be ridiculous to complain that an absurdist comedy makes no sense, but there are many occasions when Walsh takes too much licence in the name of absurdism and director Nicky Allpress’s frenzied production fails to rein him in. When things quieten down and the pace slows, signs of a decent play start to emerge and the savage beauty in Walsh’s almost poetic writing becomes, fleetingly, beguiling.

The addition of this new venue to London’s off-West End theatre scene is warmly welcomed. Inevitably, future productions will be less site-specific than this inaugural one and, hopefully, they will also be more appealing.

Performance date: 24 February 2023

Windfall (Southwark Playhouse Borough)

Posted: February 15, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Writer: Scooter Pietsch

Director: Mark Bell


After a day at the office, what could be better than an evening at the office? American writer Scooter Pietsch’s comic morality fable, Windfall, takes a broad swipe at office life – its backstabbing, secret affairs, jealousies, frustrations, and so on. The most notable thing that the group in the play are not seen to do is work.

Office manager, Kate (Judith Amsenga), unmarried and senior in years, is a quietly efficient leader. In contrast, Hannah (Audrey Anderson) is separated and prone to bouts of hysteria, seeing herself as Sally Field in Norma Rae. Chris (Wesley Griffith) clings to the guitar belonging to his recently deceased father and drowns his sorrows in booze. Galvan (Gabriel Paul) is a put-upon religious zealot who believes that he is God’s messenger. The lives of these four are humdrum and the only escape could be a winning lottery ticket.

The comedy is slow to gain momentum, but the arrival of boss Glenn (Jack Bennett) brings some fizz. He enters with a tube inserted down his throat to combat a digestive problem, but that does not impede his merciless bullying. The play was first staged in America in 2016 and is meant to be contemporary, but the level of bullying suggests much earlier and this is endorsed by some cultural references and the low-tech office set, designed by Rachel Stone.

Glenn’s surprise is the introduction to the team of Jacqueline (Joanne Clifton) as a sort of spy. Her surname is Vanderbilt and she is taken to be a cut above the rest, but she is actually a single mother who is struggling to pay the bills. She becomes a member of the team’s lottery syndicate and, lured by Galvan’s vision that a $500 million prize will become theirs, all five invest $911 and await their windfall. Needless to say, all does not go to plan.

The first act of director Mark Bell’s production struggles to find the level of buoyancy needed for a screwball comedy and it sometimes plods. However, the investment in character development pays good dividends in a raucous second act in which all standards of decency are gone with the windfall. Bell previously directed the hugely successful The Play That Goes Wrong and he appears well inside his comfort zone when this comedy turns into unrestrained slapstick, performed with admirable precision.

Eventually, Windfall produces a steady flow of laughs, if not quite enough to live up to its title and Pietsch tends to stretch the central joke too far. Running at two hours, including a 20-minute interval (why?), this production suggests strongly that shorter could have meant sharper.

Performance date: 14 February 2023

Phaedra (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: February 10, 2023 in Theatre
Photo: Johan Persson

Writer and director: Simon Stone


There is nothing like a Greek tragedy to add misery to a dark February evening, but not to worry, because Simon Stone’s modern reimagining of The Phaedra myth is nothing like a Greek tragedy, at least not for more than three-quarters of its duration.

in this version, the Phaedra figure is Helen, a high-flying politician, who juggles a shadow ministerial job with tending for her constituents and jointly heading a bickering dysfunctional family. Power-dressed to the hilt, Janet McTeer’s Helen has the air of a woman who is in complete control, at least until a new arrival exposes her vulnerability, leading to her downfall. Paul Chahidi makes excellent use of the comic potential in Hugo, Helen’s unexciting husband, who is used to playing second fiddle, but finds himself increasingly exasperated. 

Stone directs the opening scene, a family gathering, as if he is telling the audience that the chit-chat and the sub-plots are inconsequential, as indeed they turn out to be. The dialogue is rushed through at breakneck speed, making some of it inaudible, but at least it compresses the production’s running time to a bearable 160 minutes (including interval). The play’s real substance emerges in scene two with the arrival of Sofiane, the son of Helen’s now dead Moroccan lover from the 1980s. Assaad Bouab gives him a mysterious, magnetic appeal, which helps to explain why, instantly, Helen becomes infatuated with him. He seduces her (or vice versa) and he then turns his attention to Helen’s unhappily married daughter, Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), making her pregnant.

McTeer and Bouab shine brightly, but neither can eclipse the star quality of Chloe Lamford’s extraordinary set designs, which scream out “people in glass houses…”. The characters, encased in a Lyttelton stage-filling revolving glass box, then throw proverbial stones at each other and at society’s codes of morality. Inside the box, Scandinavian style interiors suggest cold habitats in which lust outranks love and power is all. Irritatingly, the designs reinforce the “fourth wall”, but it constantly intrigues and grabs the imagination.

Throughout the first act, Stone adds deft comic touches to the drama, as if to highlight the ridiculousness of the characters’ behaviour. The second act begins with a hilarious scene of family disintegration in a chic restaurant and this is more reminiscent of early Ayckbourn than of any tragedy, Greek or otherwise. It is a bold move to insert a comedy segment as the prelude to a dramatic climax and, even though the scenes do not blend together seamlessly, the effect is disarming. Bold too is the climax itself in which, lit from the rear, the actors appear only as enlarged silhouettes on the glass.

In all of this, Stone is exploring playfully the clashes between modern sophisticated lifestyles and primitive human urges. Opportunities to expand on the pressures placed specifically on women in modern professional life and on the different attitudes towards them and their male counterparts are largely passed over. The writer seems less concerned with making serious social points than with creating a piece of stimulating and original entertainment.

This Phaedra is inconsistent, over-gimmicky and occasionally baffling. However, its plus points outnumber its flaws and it achieves a strange and seductive quality that imprints itself on the mind.

Performance date: 9 February 2023

Kissed by a Flame (Pleasance Theatre)

Posted: February 4, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Liam Fraser Richardson

Writer: Simon Perrott

Director: James Callàs Ball


Condensing 11 years of grieving into 70 minutes of catharsis, Simon Perrott’s one-act play Kissed by a Flame is a deeply personal account of the pain of losing a loved one and the process of healing afterwards. The writer describes the play as autobiographical, paying tribute in the programme to his partner, who died in 2007.

Director James Callàs Ball’s production is performed, somewhat inappropriately, in a cabaret room; “death is a cabaret old chum” could spring to mind in an attempt to detract from the gloom on stage. Jamie (Ian Leer) and Teddy (Andrew Lancel) were in a relationship for as long as they have been parted when the play begins. Jamie is the type who is always burying his head in the sand, Teddy had been the one to yank it out, so, when Jamie needs to reconcile himself with the past in order to move on with his life, it is the imagined appearance of Teddy that forces him to read an old diary.

The diary covers the final months of the couple’s life together, from Teddy’s diagnosis of oesophagus cancer to his passing. Perrott tells us almost nothing about the characters’ wider lives together or separately, keeping the play focussed narrowly on Jamie’s ongoing trauma and his times with Teddy during illness. Impeccably acted, the partnership, tactile and affectionate, has a moving romantic quality, always overshadowed by the knowledge of tragedy.

The set, designed by Jack Valentine, is a white circular revolving stage with a double bed, draped in white linen at its centre. This gives an ethereal feel to what had been the couple’s living space, suiting the unworldly presence of Teddy. Perrott articulates Jamie’s feelings of loss, helplessness and guilt with admirable clarity, having revealed that he is drawing from personal experience and seeing writing the play as part of his journey to recovery.

When Teddy’s ghost thanks Jamie for all the shared laughter during his final days, it feels as if the writer is inviting himself to introduce some comedy, much needed to relieve the play’s relentlessly mournful tone. Regrettably, the invitation is declined, but, nonetheless, this morbid romance leaves its mark for being heartfelt and truthful.

Performance date: 3 February 2023

Photo: Mathew Tsang

Writer and director:  Michel Laprise

Creative director: Chantal Tremblay


High-flying. Death-defying. Jaw dropping. The clichés abound when describing the work of Cirque du Soleil, the French-Canadian entertainment group that was founded in 1984. This “circus of the sun” resumes its regular Winter visits to London with the European premiere of the new show, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities.

The Royal Albert Hall is celebrating its 150th Birthday and it seems likely that many of the basic stunts seen in this show pre-date it. However, Cirque du Soleil is not about the basics, it is about presentation and packaging. As expected, the show is a visual extravaganza that revels in the enormous space (most specifically the height) made available. The show and the venue are matched perfectly to each other.

In Kurios… the flimsy premise is that a seeker opens their large curio cupboard to release the world’s hidden marvels and bring them to vibrant life. The curiosities that emerge stretch our imaginations to the limits, as directors Michel Laprise and Chantal Tremblay fill the stage and above it with dazzling colour and non-stop action. Original music complements the surreal images and the whole spectacle is seasoned with generous sprinklings of visual wit

So send in the clowns, the jugglers, the acrobats, the trapeze artists, the high wire walkers, the brave and the foolish. The invitation is to sit back in amazement, but don’t try any of it at home. Even PT Barnum might have conceded that this is the greatest show were it not for the absence of elephants, tigers, etc, none of which would be acceptable to modern audiences. Compensation is offered in an invisible circus comedy sequence, during which the deafening roar of an unseen lion echoes around the Hall.

On arrival, the audience is greeted by Stéphane Roy’s labyrinthine set and even given the opportunity to walk through it. There are enough zany, garish costumes, designed by Philippe Guillotel, to inspire several series of The Masked Singer. Performers are seen clambering up a tree of precariously balanced chairs towards the old building’s dome, falling as if from the sky and swinging out above the heads of the gaping audience. Arms and legs are in positions that they really have no right to be as precisely timed acrobatic choreography provides thrills galore.

The show has its climaxes, soaring (literally and otherwise) to the heights and is seldom grounded. Served up withe customary panache.  Kurios… may not have many surprises, but it is hard to think of any disappointments.

Performancece date: 18 January 2023

On the Ropes (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 11, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writers: Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland

Director: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour


The Park 200 Theatre, named to reflect its seating capacity, is expanded to accommodate many more than that number for the World Premiere of On the Ropes. Zahra Mansouri’s design transforms the space to resemble a compact sports arena, with spectators sitting on all four sides of a Boxing ring. Actors and audience are both, almost literally, on the ropes.

The play, in part a musical, is autobiographical, written by its subject, Vernon Vanriel, in collaboration with Dougie Blaxland. The story is told in 12 “rounds” and the ring becomes a metaphor for a life full of challenges and confrontations, victories and defeats. Vernon had arrived in the United Kingdom from Jamaica, aged six, as part of the Windrush generation, settling in Tottenham. He fails academically, but drifts into the Boxing world, where he thrives.

The story traces Vernon’s career through the 1970s and 80s from turning professional in small clubs to topping the bill at the Royal Albert Hall. He acquires the nickname “The Entertainer”, due to his insistence on putting on a show for his followers and takes on Boxing’s establishment to secure fair ticket pricing for his bouts. After retirement, new opponents emerge for him, combatting mental illness, Cocaine addiction and a serious heart condition. All this and his biggest fight is still to come.

There is a lot packed into a crowded first half, perhaps too much for a single drama, but director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s high energy production dances as if to the beat of a Reggae tune, its relentless pace  leaving little time for reflection. It is buoyed by three superb performances, the trio being on stage continuously throughout: Mensah Bediako, ageing some 50 years, is a commanding figure as Vernon, with Ashley D Gayle and and Amber James playing all the key people in his life.

The dialogue, some of it in rhyming verse, is crisp and the drama reflects Vernon’s passion for music by incorporating several classic songs of black origin – some Soul and Gospel in style, but primarily Reggae. Yes these musical interludes impede the flow of the storytelling, but the quality of the performances negates any cause for complaint.

In later life, Vernon returns to Jamaica to visit his new-born sone and finds himself barred from re-entering the United Kingdom. He is caught up in the scandal of the Home Office’s treatment of Windrush generation immigrants. Stranded and suffering many years of extreme poverty and degradation, he is sustained only by the in-born spirit of a fighter. This part of the story is depicted powerfully, but it make up a more sombre second act in which much of the production’s earlier rhythm is lost and the drama begins to feel slightly overlong.

On the Ropes tells an important true story and wraps it in a parcel of rich entertainment. Maybe the show is not entirely a knockout, but it certainly packs a heavy punch.

Performance date: 10 January 2023

Salt-Water Moon (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: January 6, 2023 in Theatre

Writer: David French

Director: Peter Kavanagh


Arriving a little too early for St Valentine’s Day, Canadian writer David French’s 75-minute play brings a scent of romance to the January air. We are told that the play has been performed regularly in North America and elsewhere since its first staging in 1984; perhaps this is due equally to its feel-good appeal and to the fact that, with just two actors and one simple set, it is extremely easy to put on anywhere at any time.

Surprisingly, the play is receiving its United Kingdom premiere here. The setting is a remote Newfoundland coastal village in 1926. The dark shadow of the First World War still hangs over the inhabitants as Jacob, a young man who had left for Toronto a year earlier, returns to be reunited with Mary, the sweetheart whom he had abandoned without saying proper goodbyes. In Jacob’s absence, Mary has become engaged to marry another man who can offer her security and stability.

Mim Houghton’s set design, a white bench and side table on grass against a backdrop of brightly shining stars, lends a dreamy feel to director Peter Kavanagh’s  captivating production. In this idyllic spot, the one-time lovers rake over the past and the play asks will they or won’t they reconcile their differences.

Joseph Potter’s Jacob has the impish charm to counter perfectly the slightly tarnished innocence of Bryony Miller’s Mary. Their exchanges bristle with romantic innuendo to suggest an undying chemistry between them. French’s dialogue also reveals some grimmer details of Newfoundland life in the 1920s and reminds us of the losses of Canadian families from the Great War in Europe.

Its social and historical observations are interesting, but, essentially, Salt-Water Moon is a fluffy romcom, albeit one that is a bit light on the comedy. Even though its journey and its destination throw up few surprises, the play still leaves much to enjoy along the way.

Performance date: 5 January 2023

Mandela (Young Vic)

Posted: December 10, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Helen Murray

Music and lyrics: Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky

Book: Laiona Michelle

Director: Schele Williams


Re-telling one of the most told stories in modern history, Mandela is a new musical based on the life of Nelson Mandela from the early 1960s until the completion of his long walk to freedom in 1990. It is a story of love and suffering, loss and triumph, seemingly the perfect basis for a dramatic musical.

The show’s biggest asset is its extraordinary central character and its biggest liability is over-familiarity with him. There is very little that Laiona Michelle’s book can add to what we already know: Mandela emerges  as the leader of the movement resisting South Africa’s abhorrent Apartheid system and serves 27 years in prison, during which time he become the focus of worldwide opposition to the system. Williams tells it straight, chronologically, with little colouring or humour, giving the musical a solid if unexciting foundation. 

A powerful performance by Michael Luwoye shows Mandela’s transformations from home loving family man to revolutionary leader, to oppressed prisoner and, finally, to statesman. However, saintly men do not necessarily provide a rich source for gripping drama and the show struggles to find interesting dimensions to Mandela’s character. Does the book dig beneath Mandela’s wholly virtuous image to look for some shades of darkness which contrast with the goodness? Of course not.

Potentially, the more interesting Mandela is Nelson’s wife Winnie, played superbly by Danielle Flamanya. Her journey from devoted stay-at-home mother to political leader standing in for her imprisoned husband is projected strongly, but, again, she becomes a character without flaws and the controversies which would later engulf her are skimmed over in just a couple of lines.

Director Scheme Williams’ production is slick and occasionally spectacular, making full use of the large open stage with a company of more than 20. Set designer Hannah Beachler keeps things simple, with a representation of the Mandela family home appearing at intervals, while costumes designed by Fay Fullerton bring vibrant colour to the stage, augmented by Jon Clark’s very effective lighting designs.

The show opens brilliantly with songs co-written by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky, drawing from traditional African rhythms and harmonies. Marvellous dance routines, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma further establishes the African setting. Similar sequences return at times throughout the show, but, at other times, the music seems more inspired by Les Misérables, suggesting that Mandela’s suffering is being compared with that of the fictional Jean Valjean. This means that, for long spells, the unique African flavour of the production is lost.

When the show taps fully into the story’s African roots, it flourishes, but, when it drifts towards the style of conventional musical theatre, it flounders. In all it is a frustrating mix of the thrilling and the bland.

Performance date: 8 December 2022