Beginning (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

David Eldridge’s new play begins at the end – the end of a drunken flat warming party. Hostess Laura (Justine Mitchell) stands at the door, but the last lingering guest, Danny (Sam Troughton), there as a friend of an acquaintance, declines to exit through it. After the play has progressed over 100 minutes of real time, he is still in the flat.

When layers have been peeled away, both Laura and Danny are revealed to be damaged and lonely. She is recently out of a 10-year relationship and has undergone an abortion. He is a divorcee who is separated from his seven-year-old daughter. Both are 40-ish. The only things that they seem to have in common are likings for Strictly… and Scotch eggs. Fervent Corbynite Laura shows pride in her new Crouch End pad and boasts the job title of “MD”. Politically disinterested Danny has a boring job, lives with his Mum in Essex and is dogged by low self-esteem.

The play looks to be on track to developing into a predictable romantic comedy of opposites attracting, but the sharpness of Eldridge’s writing dodges all the obvious pitfalls. The challenge facing this couple is to establish an emotional connection before the physical one takes over. In amusing exchanges, they probe each other, attempting to reconcile differences and synchronise senses of humour, fearful they could be about to make a terrible mistake or face embarrassing rejection. Mitchell and Troughton both understand that, when their characters are revealing themselves slowly, what cannot be spoken is often as important as their dialogue and they turn in spot-on performances of great subtlety and depth.

Fly Davis’ design makes Laura’s flat appear shabby and cheaply-furnished, adorned with fairy lights and party tinsel, but, if the look of director Polly Findlay’s sensitive production is old-fashioned, it is contrasted by many distinctly modern touches in the play. It is the woman, sexually liberated Laura, who makes all the moves, leaving Danny to resist. At one point, he resorts to stuffing empty bottles and uneaten canapés into a bin bag in a nervous attempt to detract from his pursuer’s advances.

Eldridge also sees the irony of a face-to-face first meeting in the age of the internet. Danny, who has dabbled with dating sites, bemoans the fact that he did not meet Laura online, seemingly not knowing how to handle a real-life encounter. Both refer to friends, but only of the Facebook kind, implying that they are becoming strangers to real friendship. When the playwright explores the human need for companionship, his play is at its most poignant and, when he demonstrates the practical obstacles in the way of getting a meaningful relationship going, it is at its most hilarious.

Beginning is warm, funny and, above all, refreshingly honest. Eldridge leaves open the question as to whether Laura and Danny’s relationship will progress beyond stage one, but this production’s biggest strength is that it makes us care and grow to hope that it will.

Performance date: 16 October 2017

Photo: Johan Persson

Ramona Tells Jim (Bush Theatre)

Posted: September 23, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Sophie Wu sets her debut play on the rugged Scottish coastline, where the cold of Summer and the midges bite with equal force. Teenage love blossoms briefly before being washed up on the rocky shore, only to be revisited and reflected upon 15 years later.


Wu’s bitter-sweet comedy, getting its World Premiere here in the Bush Theatre’s new studio space, shows considerable promise. The writer has a sharp ear for the mundane details of everyday conversation and she develops distinctive characters without veering towards stereotypes.

A 17-year-old Scot, Joe Bannister’s geeky, easily put-upon Jim, finds his obsession with crustaceans displaced by a crush for a visitor from “Englandshire”. Ruby Bentall’s dreamy, jolly-hockey-sticks schoolgirl Ramona is a misfit with her own set and equally so in remote Scotland. The couple’s flirtation, under a meteor shower to the accompaniment of Enya’s Orinoco Flow is more awkward than romantic, but its consummation is richly comic.

Fast forward 15 years and Ramona returns to the scene to tell Jim, now a tour guide, something significant relating to their first encounter, but finds that he is now in a relationship with 19-year-old Pocahontas (Amy Lennox). She too is a dreamer, setting her sights on material possessions and getting her controlling claws into Jim, until Ramona’s return gives him the strength to resist.

The play is well served by Mel Hillyard’s simple thrust staging and three strong performances, Bannister and Bentall spanning the years with confidence. However, it is spanning the gap between dreams and reality that provides Wu with her overriding theme. Her characters dream, but their inherent inadequacies make them the architects of their own misfortunes and result in their lack of fulfilment.

Lightly plotted, Wu’s play is sustained over 80 minutes by its quirky humour, founded on the universal truth that the pieces in life’s jigsaw rarely fit together neatly. Her three characters strive valiantly to match up their fantasies with reality, but, like most of us, they do not quite make it happen.

Performance date: 22 September 2017

Loot (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

When Joe Orton’s life was cut short so cruelly in 1967, he left behind only a small body of works. Loot was his second stage hit, following quickly on the heels of Entertaining Mr Sloane and, 52 years after its first appearance, its ability to shock audiences has, inevitably, diminished. However, expectations that its black comedy would have dated are thwarted emphatically here in a revival that is consistently hilarious and reveals the play to be surprisingly relevant to the modern world.

Social conventions and the pillars of British life are Orton’s targets as he ridicules hypocrisy and pomposity, showing little mercy. Marriage, death, the church (particularly Catholicism) and the law all fall victim to the writer’s subversive pen. The plot of Loot could have been inspired by one of the 1950s Ealing comedies, but the play is stripped of all traces of their gentleness and gentility, and wider influences, ranging from the absurdity of Ionesco to the lunacy of The Goon Showbecome detectable.

Orton wrote for radio before finding success in theatre and his style betrays those origins, with almost every line of dialogue leading to a verbal gag. However, the success of this play also relies heavily on visual flourishes, which are plentiful in this production. Most notably, a running joke concerning a corpse brings repeated howls of laughter, allowing Anah Ruddin to steal the show without speaking a word or moving a muscle.

The problem with this type of anarchic comedy is that it can often be difficult to sustain at a high level for long, but Orton keeps it on the boil throughout two acts and Michael Fentiman’s effervescent production rarely flags. Gabriella Slade’s set design, a sombre chapel with dark wooden panelling, is a little out of place when all the play’s action occurs in the home of the McLeavy family, but it works in giving an ironic air of reverence to a play that is entirely irreverent from beginning to end.

Sinéad Matthews is a morbid joy as the seven-time black widow Fay, who always finds justification for her misdemeanours in her Roman Catholic faith. Having nursed the stricken Mrs McLeavy towards her death, perhaps helping her on her way, she turns to her bereaved husband (Ian Redford) and persuades him to propose to her by telling him that two weeks would be a suitable period of mourning. Ne’er-do-well son Hal McLeavy (Sam Frenchum), hampered by an inability to tell lies, has worthy ambitions to establish a brothel and has just joined forces with undertakers’ assistant Dennis (Calvin Demba) to rob a bank. Where else to hide their loot but in Hal’s mother’s coffin?

Dennis, a father of five illegitimate children, casually exchanges kisses with Hal while proposing marriage to Fay, giving the play the sexual ambiguity in which Orton revelled. The police, with whom the playwright himself had brushes, are represented by the dim-witted, corrupt Inspector Truscott, made a coarse bully by Christopher Fulford’s performance.

The word “Ortonesque” has now entered the English language and this fine revival of Loot shows us exactly why. The writer’s distinctive blend of various comedy styles feels uniquely British, even though it is British life that it lampoons so savagely. The play easily stands the test of time and it leaves us regretting that there are so few others like it.

Performance date: 23 August 2017


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Sometimes it feels as if the only thing that can be said in favour of democracy is that it is infinitely preferable to any conceivable alternative. Rob Drummond’s new 90-minute one man show sets out to expose the fallibilities, anomalies and contradictions of majority verdicts by asking the audience to make decisions and then to reflect on the consequences.

There is a buzz in the air on entering the Dorfman Theatre, which is configured in the round. Above the circular stage, projections show the activity inside a beehive and Jemima Robinson’s set design is awash with honeycomb shapes.

The sound of the swarm lingers in the ears long after Drummond has begun to tell his story, a train of events triggered by his decision not to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum. He takes a journey to beyond the northernmost railway station in the (still) United Kingdom in pursuit of a slightly nutty left wing beekeeper who is waging war on Scotland’s answer to the Ku Klux Klan.

The audience is given electronic keypads and, at several points, Drummond asks for votes, which he claims can alter the course of the show. To get things moving, he asks very basic questions and, at this performance, he ascertained that the majorities in his audience were white, female and liberal; only 8% supported Brexit. More surprisingly, a majority supported the admission of latecomers to the auditorium, giving Drummond the opportunity to embarrass them on stage. The audience opposed having an interval, thereby casting aside the needs of the incontinent.

The most serious question being asked by Drummond and illustrated in his story, is to what extent can a liberal person tolerate opposing views when such views are (in that person’s opinion) clearly and incontrovertibly wrong. On most evenings, it is likely that audiences will claim to be liberal and also claim to oppose the use of violence as a means to achieving any end. Are these two positions always compatible? News coming from Charlottesville, Virginia on the day of this show’s opening underlines the urgency of the writer’s concerns.

Directed by David Overend, Drummond prowls around the stage, drawing in the audience. Sometimes he looks genuinely hurt and perplexed when verdicts do not concur with what are, perhaps, his own views. At other times, he shrugs and accepts the inevitable. At intervals, he stops and the stage darkens, leaving a single spotlight on him, and he sets a series of moral conundrums which gets us to ask ourselves why, faced with slightly different situations, we might take life and death decisions that could be seen as inconsistent with each other.

The Majority is an amusing diversion that succeeds in its objective to be thought-provoking, even if many of the thoughts that it provokes may prove to be no more than fleeting. Skillfully, Drummond keeps the show buzzing and all that it needs is just a little more sting.

Performance date: 14 August 2017

Photo: Ellie Kurttz


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

When relationships go wrong, the result can be amicable (or unamicable) separation; in celebrity circles it can be “conscious uncoupling”, but, in her 50-minute play, Milly Thomas asks us to consider another option – that of brutal cessation.

An unnamed couple face each other inside an unfurnished white square; they are barefoot and wearing loose-fitting clothes. It seems that a bout of Judo is about to commence. At first, She (Lydia Larson) teases playfully, testing Him (Alan Mahon) to prove his devotion to her. He succumbs and reciprocates. Progressively, the teasing gets more sinister and She reveals that her fantasy is to smash in her partner’s skull, leading to a lobotomy and mummification. When he takes his fists and a hammer to reduce a watermelon to pulp, we really get the picture.

The play applies a sharp razor to slice into a mutually dependent relationship and expose the latent tensions lurking inside. Performed in short scenes, Bethany Pitts’ brisk and efficient production has a cold, surreal feel that befits the clinical text. It is clear that this couple is driven apart by conflict and we have to assume that only conflict holds them together.

Thomas tells us virtually nothing about these people’s lives outside their combat area, so how can we care about them? That said, it is likely that getting us to care is not the writer’s purpose. By making her play so heartless and emotionally empty, she is leading us to focus on ourselves and the potential for violence in our own relationships and, to that end, she succeeds.

Performance date: 11 August 2017

Photo: The Other Richard


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

A policewoman’s lot is not a happy one. Performing her own hour-long monologue in the aptly-named Bunker One at the Pleasance Courtyard, Nicola Wren requires herself to drop to a seated position on the hard concrete floor repeatedly, perhaps showing us that an actor’s lot is not always so happy either.

Wren’s character is a constable up for promotion to sergeant. Advising her on how to tackle the interview, a senior officer gives her a list of criteria which includes “be yourself”, commenting astutely that it is the one thing that she needs to work on. The advice is given over a meal of dodgy prawns, ensuring that the following day does not begin too well.

The play demonstrates that a smart uniform, a breezy persona and an air of calm authority cannot mask inner emptiness. Our heroine is able to handle all the ugliness and aggravation that her job throws at her, but she is defeated by lingering grief for her lost older brother, Jamie. Finding an old cassette player she inserts a recording made by Jamie for her 10th birthday and replays it over and over, listening particularly to the track Sit Down by the group James. Every time that the title words are sung, she obeys the instruction, just as she used to do with her brother.

Wren engages with the audience as if trying to restore calm after an incident. Her police constable is the sort of person that we feel comforted to know is protecting us – upright, straightforward and optimistic. However, she is caught out by basic emotions that are common to us all and it is a fair cop.

Performance date: 11 August 2017


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Coming of age stories are fairly common, but they usually feature characters at least a decade younger than the pair in this hour-long duologue from Australia. Fag/Stag, written and performed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs, is a touching bromance, recounting the misadventures of two lads still struggling to come to terms with adulthood at a time when glances in the mirror prompt the words “I’m starting to look old”.

Corgan (Isaacs) gets an invitation to the wedding of his ex, Tamara, to a guy with a limp handshake and he wonders if it should have been him. His best mate, Jimmy (Fowler), also invited, had a week-long fling with Tamara in his teens, but has now just walked out on his long-term boyfriend and wonders if he has done the right thing. They meet to play Donkey Kong, stuck on one level; they pick up casual sex partners in bars, fool around on Tinder and Grindr, get drunk a lot and dabble in drugs. All the time, neither can shake off the niggling feeling that something is missing in his life.

Corgan and Jimmy speak in turns directly to the audience, often giving subtly different versions of the same events. Isaacs’ Corgan has the outer confidence of a guys’ guy who has had it easy in life and with the ladies, but his self-deprecating manner points to inner doubts. Fowler’s Jimmy is slightly flamboyant and more cynical, hardened by the added challenges of being gay. Both are damaged by the choices that they have made.

The performers move the play along at a cracking pace and develop an effortless rapport. The writing is humorous and perceptive, mocking social conventions gently and skating lightly over darker themes. As the big day arrives, Corgan and Jimmy witness the union of a “penguin” and a “meringue” and we, like them, ask whether it is about time for them to grow up, or would they be better off staying the little boys that they are?

Performance date: 10 August 2017

Photo: Jamie Breen