Photo: Brittain Photography

Writer: John Lahr

Director: Nico Rao Pimparé

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Primarily noted for a meagre three hits, playwright Joe Orton was a leading figure in 1960’s “Swinging” London, rebelling against the establishment with wit and vigour, until, suddenly in August 1967, it all came to a stop. John Lahr’s play uses Orton’s personal diaries, quoting some extracts verbatim, to paint a picture of the final years of the writer’s life,

 When the play’s main action starts,  Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot are already successes, having caused outrage among more traditional theatregoers, but their writer remains resident in a small Islington flat shared with his long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell, who is seven years older. Toby Osmond’s Halliwell, dressed in a business suit and with an ill-fitting wig to hide his baldness, is brittle and humourless, resentful that his one-time prodigy has now eclipsed him. The deterioration of Halliwell’s mental health, leading to his brutal murder of Orton and suicide, is extremely well played.

in covering ground gone over in many dramatisations and documentaries, director Nico Rao Pimparé’s production challenges George Kemp, playing Orton, not only to match up to previous performances (most notably by Gary Oldman), but also to fit in with appearances by Orton himself in several surviving television interviews. Kemp is certainly convincing as the cocky East Midlands upstart gatecrashing the London scene, but he does not quite find the rough edges and air of danger of a still rebellious celebrity in his 30s. Four actors share supporting roles, which include Kenneth Williams and Paul McCartney.

The problems with all diaries are that they give just a single perspective on their subjects and they tend to focus on intimate personal details. Here, Orton’s obsession with casual homosexual encounters is so prominent that we feel entitled to ask: “how did he ever find time to write plays?” Whether at home in London or on holidays in North Africa, it is all much the same and explicit details, having lost their power to shock decades ago, do nothing to arouse interest. As a result of repetition, the play feels far too long.

One of the greatest ironies surrounding Orton is that two of the pillars of the establishment against which he rebelled began to be dismantled within a year of his death. In 1968, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales and the role of the Lord Chamberlain’s office in censoring theatre was abolished. Whether or not Orton played any part in forcing these changes is not considered in Lahr’s play, which begs for more context than can be drawn from a personal diary.

By the time that What the Butler Saw opened in London’s West End in 1969, with a distinguished cast led by Sir Ralph Richardson, Joe Orton had become part of the establishment that he had so despised and the adjective “Ortonesque” had entered the English language. Without a doubt, the playwright was a somebody, but Lahr’s play seems prompted by the title of that final hit by taking a prurient peep at Orton’s personal life, while offering little to explain the nature of his genius.

Performance date: 30 March 2022

Photo: Ali Wright

Writer and director: Edward Einhorn
⭐️⭐️

The celebrated writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/wife Alice B Toklas were Americans in Paris long before Gene Kelly went there to dance. According to US writer Edward Einhorn’s play, receiving its European premiere, they were part of an artsy set that populated the French capital in the early part of the 20th Century, flouting society’s conventions and getting away with it the name of “genius”.

As the title states, the story centres entirely around the wedding of the two women. This is the sort of play, packed with intellectual pretentiousness, that frequently wows New York audiences a long way off Broadway and it seems to have found an equivalent London home in a basement near to Piccadilly Circus. The characters mill around and discuss art and death, love and sex, just as we imagine artistic folk always do, but none of the conversations go anywhere.

Rarely can a play have made such a big deal out of actors doubling up on roles, presenting it in the text as a joke in the opening scene and then repeating the joke over and over again until it becomes exceedingly tiresome. Everyone on stage, at some point, is a character “pretending” to be another character.

On the rare occasions when the real people are allowed to come through, Natasha Byrne (Gertrude) and Alyssa Simon (Alice) are a touching, mildly eccentric couple. They whet the appetite for the story to be retold in a more cohesive, less gimmicky form. Mark Huckett is a boorish, hard drinking Ernest Hemingway and Kelly Burke is a flamboyant Pablo Picasso. The four actors share the wedding guests, who include TS Eliot, James Joyce and Thornton Wilder.

Machiko Weston’s set design, an array of empty white picture frames, unintentionally reflects a play that is showy, but short on real substance.  Einhorn’s production of his own work is billed as a comedy, but most of the laughs come in the form of embarrassed sniggers when actors are being particularly silly. A prevailing air of flippancy makes the evening palatable, but it persistently undermines efforts to get scenes taken seriously.

Running for just 90 minutes, this bizarre play has two acts but no proper interval, just a short break in which the whole audience is served “Champagne” to toast the happy couple. The show finds a way to bring some welcome cheer after all.

Performance date: 22 March 2022

Tom Fool (Orange Tree Theatre)

Posted: March 20, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: The Other Richard

Writer: Franz Xaver Kroetz

Director: Diyan Zora

⭐️⭐️⭐️

By 1978, when Mensch Meir (Tom Fool) premiered, Franz Xaver Koetz had become Germany’s most performed living playwright. The play suggests that, in chronicling family dysfunction, he could be the German equivalent to his United Kingdom contemporary, Alan Ayckbourn, but his characters are perhaps one step further down the social ladder and his themes are more overtly laden with left wing sentiments.

Director Diyan  Zora’s revival of the play, performed from a translation by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, remains rooted very firmly in 1970’s Germany. As such, it struggles to find contexts in time or place.  that could connect it strongly to modern Britain, its social attitudes and politics looking conspicuously dated and, of course, foreign. However, it still fascinates as a curiosity akin to a museum exhibit and the comic drama which edges towards tragedy still grips.

41-year-old Otto (Michael Shaeffer) describes himself as “a human screwdriver” in his mind-numbing low skilled job at a car factory. His wife Martha (Anna Francolini) does not question her role as home maker, spending her 850 DM per week housekeeping allowance frugally. Their teenage son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room of the family’s small flat; he has finished school and has no job, so he does nothing, rejecting parental pleas to take up the law or dentistry by stating a preference for starting a bricklaying apprenticeship. It seems that the entrapment of the oppressed working classes in lives without hope is to be passed down from one generation to the next.

There are touches of Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Otto as he crumbles in the face of his own failures. He is a slave at work who attempts to be a slave master at home, obsessing over trivia. Shaeffer’s deadpan style finds comedy in the character’s absurd pedantry without losing sight of the tragedy in his plight; his escape to a fantasy world as the pilot of a model glider is strangely touching. Francolini suggests that Martha could be made of sterner stuff, but she is just as downtrodden as Otto when she performs her household and conjugal duties, without questioning; her fawning over a Swedish royal wedding on television allows Kroetz to illustrate the power of the social hierarchy which underpins capitalism.

Zora’s production navigates the play’s many awkward turns confidently, its boldest sequence coming towards the end of the first act. Otto’s pent up frustration explodes in a fit of rage which sees him smashing everything in the flat across the floor; then, slowly and methodically, he and Martha clear up the mess. The anger simmering beneath their calmness and total silence is almost deafening.

The short second act feels anticlimactic and adds little to a drama that had already run its course. In 2022, the human screwdriver would have been replaced by a machine, Martha would be a joint breadwinner and the bored Ludwig would be preoccupied with computer games and social media. Beyond such details, Tom Fool prompts the question as to whether working class lives have much changed.

Performance date: 16 March 2022

Bacon (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: March 5, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Ali Wright

Writer: Sophie Swithinbank

Director: Matthew Iliffe

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Stories of sickening violence among adolescent boys attending inner city schools frequently fill local news reports, but we get few insights into the details of their lives and the causes of their behaviour. Sophie Swithinbank’s new 75-minute one-act play interrogates teenage macho culture with the vision of an outsider looking in and uncovers its soft centre.

Mark and Darren are 15-year-olds, both from single parent families, but seemingly polar opposites. Mark is geeky, smartly dressed, conformist and proud of the waistcoat that he made for his dog. Darren is an unruly, aggressive bully, lying as conspicuously about his sexual exploits as about a three-day holiday to Barbados; his idea of defying convention is walking through a drive-through McDonald’s, but his love for his three pet mice (Mac, Cheese and Salad) points to some redeeming features. For entirely different reasons, both boys are friendless. The story of their odd relationship is told by Mark, after an unexpected reunion four years later.

The see-saw which spans the width of the traverse stage in Natalie Johnson’s simple set design could be a metaphor for the progression of the play, as laddish comedy and visceral drama vie for supremacy. Bacon begins as a bitter-sweet bromance, but becomes a riveting emotional journey as both Mark and Darren struggle to come to terms with their sexuality. The constant throughout the play is Swithinbank’s razor-sharp writing.

Corey Montague-Sholay reveals the inner turmoil beneath Mark’s calm and orderly exterior. There is genuine astonishment on his face when it occurs to him that Darren had simply acknowledged his existence. Mark realises that he is gay, but cannot make sense of his feelings towards Darren and, in his confusion, resorts to self harming.

The vulnerability masked by Darren’s swagger is brought out beautifully by William Robinson, who demonstrates clearly that all the character’s rule breaking is motivated by his need to get noticed by a neglectful father. Working together, the two actors generate an explosive force, sparked by physical energy and precision timing.

Using the tight performance space to maximum advantage, director Matthew Iliffe’s sizzling production moves at breakneck speed, slowing down only for the tenderest of exchanges. Like a gourmet fry-up, this Bacon is to be savoured. 

Performance date: 4 March 2022

Writer: Ruby Thomas

Director: Lucy Morrison

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What is it that separates the human animal from all other species? Ruby Thomas’ play, The Animal Kingdom, receiving its world premiere here, asks that question and seems to toy with the answer that there is not very much. The stage is set out like an animal sanctuary with the audience seated around an enclosure, wildlife noises are heard in the background and the only thing that could be missing to complete the picture is a commentary from David Attenborough.

The play’s “menagerie” is a dysfunctional family of four, shepherded by Daniel (Paul Keating), a calm and compassionate counsellor. His mission is to chair six therapy sessions which have been convened to help in the recovery of family member Sam, an in-patient at a psychiatric clinic. Sam is a 21-year-old university student, played with nervy intensity by Ragevan Vasan; he has been self-harming and the play charts the cathartic process over the six sessions, exposing previously hidden emotions and breaking through barriers.

Martina Laird excels as Sam’s mother, Rita, a woman who, unwittingly, makes everything about herself; she takes the blame for her son’s troubles, including the fact that he is “queer”, thereby arguing that nurture overcomes nature even in this purportedly natural world. She is divorced from Sam’s father, Tim, a man of few words and still fewer outward expressions of feelings, who believes that he can compensate for these shortcomings by splashing out money. Jonathan McGuinness has little to do as Tim sits on the sidelines, but he rises to the occasion when the character finally opens out, giving the play its most touching scene.

Ashna Rabheru gives a spirited performance as Sofia, Sam’s 18-year-old sister, who is worn down by constantly worrying about her unstable brother. Thomas seems less concerned with the specific details of the characters’ lives than with showing their relationships as being representative of family dynamics in a general sense and, to this limited extent, they occasionally come across as stereotypes. However, her approach works in asking the audience to identify with the family’s turmoil and thereby drawing us in. Maybe the overriding animal metaphor gets a little lost, but the writer creates an absorbing and moving piece that is laced generously with deft touches of humour.

Director Lucy Morrison leads us around this emotional rollercoaster with a carefully measured production which is more effective for being unshowy and allowing lucid writing and strong performances to carry it through. It is often claimed that brainpower is the only feature that distinguishes homo sapiens from the wider animal kingdom, but, after 80 minutes of sharing the emotions of the family in this play, we may wonder whether intelligence gives us any advantage at all.

Performance date: 24 February 2022

Never Not Once (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisiafulli

Writer: Carey Crim

Director: Katharine Farmer

⭐️⭐️💫

Seated around three sides of an elegant and cosy room, audiences for American writer Carey Crim’s play Never Not Once may feel transported back in time. A Persian carpet is spread across the floor and framed prints are arranged tidily on the far wall, hanging above an invitingly comfortable sofa. Yet the traditional flavour of Roisin Martindale’s set design belies the very modern nature of the relationships seen in the play.

Eleanor (Meaghan Martin) is the teenage daughter of same sex parents who is about to become engaged to a fellow student, steady and dependable Rob (Gilbert Kyem). Her birth mother, Allison (Flora Montgomery), a former dancer, is reserved and slightly distant, unlike her partner, Nadine (Amanda Bright), a successful scientist, who is emotionally closer to Eleanor. Their home in Eastern USA is a picture of domestic bliss until Eleanor becomes obsessed with finding her father and hires a private detective to help her in achieving that goal.

Crim’s play starts out being about heritage and identity, but, once a can of worms has been opened, it moves in different, darker directions. Investigations point to Doug (Adrian Grove) as the likely father and disturbing revelations rock Eleanor’s world. The play crams a great deal of plot into barely 80 minutes of running time, but it has a storyline which could have been taken from a television soap opera and the challenge presented to director Katharine Farmer is to raise it above that level.

For three quarters of the drams, Farmer’s production is calm and absorbing, helped by commendably restrained performances, particularly from Montgomery and Bright. Even occasional dollops of American-style sentimentality prove to be only mildly irritating. Unfortunately, the final quarter comes close to risible melodrama, as Crim’s sole objective seems to become to show Doug squirming in repentance for past misdemeanours. The expected examination of the psychological effect on Eleanor of her discoveries fails to materialise; instead, she has an unconvincing panic attack, in response to which Nadine offers the useful advice: “keep breathing”.

Possibly Crim tries too hard to tie things up neatly, but it is disappointing that a drama which begins as a thoughtful account of the dilemmas thrown up by 21st Century relationships ultimately falls apart. The play deserves better.

Performance date: 11 February 2022

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Elizabeth McGovern

Director: Gaby Dellal

⭐️⭐️

The name of Ava Gardner may mean little to many 21st Century film lovers. She won no Oscars and left behind few of the sort of enduring classics that still appear regularly on television and streaming services. Perhaps she would have been remembered differently if she had not turned down an offer to play Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. Yet, in her prime, during the 1940s and 50s, she was a huge name in Hollywood, whose private life led to her featuring as prominently in the gossip column headlines as on the posters for her films.

Elizabeth McGovern’s 90-minute one-act play, looking into Ava’s life, is an adaptation of the book The Secret Conversations, written by journalist Peter Evans and Ava herself. Born in 1922 in North Carolina, she had three high profile marriages: to the juvenile star Mickey Rooney, the jazz musician Artie Shaw and the legendary singer/actor Frank Sinatra. She also had a 20-year relationship with the eccentric tycoon, Howard Hughes. Her final years were spent living in a central London flat, where she died in 1990.

In her mid-60s and suffering the after affects of a stroke, Ava needs the cash that an autobiography could generate. McGovern slips comfortably into the role of the brittle fading star, chain smoking and sipping spirits. Anatol Yusef looks beleaguered as Evans, caught between a demanding publisher and an often uncooperative Ava. Yusef also takes on the roles of all three husbands in short flashback scenes. As the play’s title indicates, all the interactions are conversations, but they are only at a superficial level and neither Ava nor the other characters are given enough depth to become really interesting or to create believable dramatic tension. 

Director Gaby Dellal’s production is elaborate, possibly more so than the simply constructed play requires. The set, designed by 59 Productions, has the London flat at its heart and is framed as if it is a cinema screen which expands or contracts for different scenes. The suggestion that we could be watching a film documentary, intercut with real life footage, is not helpful. The production needs to be an insightful and involving drama rather than a recital of easily researched facts.

The play foretells its own biggest problem – that rags-to-riches stories set in Hollywood’s Golden Age are already over familiar. Evans’ publishers recognised this, urging him to spice things up and, similarly,  the stage version needs more sparks to ignite the drams. The conversations hold back their juiciest secrets and this life story of a once shining star seems distinctly lacklustre.

Performance date: 25 January 2022

Conundrum (Young Vic Theatre)

Posted: January 20, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer and director: Paul Anthony Morris

⭐️⭐️⭐️

As children, we believe that anything is possible, that we can become whatever we choose and that no obstacles will stand in our way. Looking back at those aspirations in middle age, how many of us will feel disappointed? Conundrum is a new 75-minute one-act play, written and directed by Paul Anthony Morris, which explores the gulf between childhood dreams and adult reality.

Fidel (Anthony Ofoegbu, articulating the character’s thoughts as in a monologue) was a child of the 1970s. Now, in lockdown, he sifts through old diary entries, exam results and letters of rejection for jobs which all give as their reason that he is “over-qualified”. The papers are put through the shredder. He strains to recall the sort of facts learned at school that prove to be useless in later life, adding them to a jumble of words laid across the stage floor in Sean Cavanagh’s design. 

Confidently, Fidel boasts that he was ten times brighter than any other kid, but he offers little corroboration and Morris never reveals whether he had been just a cocky brat or a genuine talent who had gone on to under-achieve. Further, we are not told precisely how Fidel has been a disappointment as an adult, but we see him driven by his perceived failures to a mental breakdown, needing to be injected with sedatives by a psychiatrist (Filip Krenus). He perceives his fate as having been pre-ordained by the circumstances into which he was born and which would always remain outside his control.

Ofoegbu grabs this rather depressing piece by the throat and delivers a performance of intense visceral power, heightened by balletic movement directed by Shane Shambhu. So remarkable is the actor that he produces the presumably unwanted effect of making this production of a play, which is built on a thin and somewhat obvious premise, seem overblown. When Fidel states that he has been a victim of racism (so indoctrinated with it that he had contributed to his own failures), it feels as if Morris is throwing in a weighty theme almost as an afterthought and the ideas which could arise from it are never properly developed.

“I know who I am” exclaims Fidel repeatedly, as if reaching this point is equal to unearthing the meaning of life, but Morris does not invite the audience to share in his discovery. Posing unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions, the play is profoundly puzzling. It is a tough watch, but, nonetheless, Ofoegbu is spellbinding.

Performance date: 19 January 2022

Folk (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs)

Posted: January 5, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Nell Leyshon

Director: Roxana Silbert

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

In the age of streaming, music can become everyone’s property within seconds of it being made available, but, in the not too distant past, songs were not written down or recorded. They belonged to individuals, families and communities, passed down from generation to generation. Nell Leyshon’s new two-act play, receiving its world premiere here, explores the place of traditional folk songs in rapidly changing times.

It is 1903 in rural Somerset and sisters Lucy and Louie occupy a small squatters’ cottage from which they work as glove makers. Their mother has died recently, leaving her songs implanted firmly in Louie’s head. While Lucy flirts with local boy John and plots an escape into the wider world, Louie mourns and she eventually meets a visiting academic, Sharp. He claims that Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have traditional folk songs, but not England, so he makes it his mission to discover the songs that define the English nation, put them onto paper and rearrange them.

In this studio theatre, Rose Revitt’s design has a strong Autumnal feel, suggesting the end of an era and director Roxana Silbert’s gently paced, un-melodramatic production underlines the sense of loss. A glove making factory is moving in to take the sisters’ work and popular entertainment is threatening to claim their mother’s songs. Their traditional ways of life are being swept away in a tidal wave of industrial and commercial forces..

Mariam Haque is outstanding as Louie, sorrowful, withdrawn and seemingly of low intellect, but finding steely resolve to defend what she believes to be her heritage. She also sings the songs sweetly, although, sadly, we hear too few of them. Simon Robson gives Sharp an air of educated arrogance, which is countered by the character’s admission of his own lack of musical talent. Sasha Frost as Lucy and Ben Allen as John make a zestful couple, hoping to improve their lives and become a spur for inevitable change.

At the heart of the play lie conflicting arguments between Sharp and Louie for progress and preservation, both presented by Leyshon in articulate form (perhaps more articulate than would be consistent with the character of a “simple” country girl). However the family drama in which the debates are encased feels too flimsy and contrived to be gripping and the play ends up as quietly charming, but short of dramatic substance.

Performance date: 4 January 2022

Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Alice Childress

Director: Nancy Medina

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Any idea that Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s angry comedy from 1955, is outdated has been countered as recently as 2019 when the Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book, was criticised widely for representing a white person’s view of America’s racial divisions. Childress, an actress herself, lambasts the dramatic arts for misrepresenting her race and adhering to cosy conventions in an era when the Civil Rights movement was only in its infancy.

The writer voices her rage mainly through the character of Wiletta Mayer (a storming performance from Tanya Moodie), an experienced black actress who is fed up with playing maids. She is cast in a leading role in a new play to be directed for Broadway by eminent film director Al Manners, given tyrannical authority by Rory Keenan. Manners brandishes liberal credentials, but orders white cast and crew members that they should not eat with their black counterparts and refuses to listen to Wiletta’s pleas to make aspects of the play and her performance more true to life. 

Childress presents her earnest arguments encased in a light comedy of backstage bitchery and theatrical in jokes. Perhaps she needed to give a sugar coating to her bitter pill in order to get it to the Broadway stage in 1955. Director Nancy Medina’s production on the Dorfman Theatre’s thrust stage needs to negotiate some tricky changes of tone in getting the play to work. The awfulness of the drama being rehearsed is exaggerated to the point that we could be watching The Play That Goes Wrong and this may be followed swiftly by an impassioned speech about racial injustice; however, the transitions between broad comedy and high drama are always handled deftly.

The company in the rehearsal room includes three other black members. Cyril Nri’s Sheldon Forester is a hardened veteran, inclined to agree with Wiletta, but more inclined to make sure that he can pay his bills. Millie Davis (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) is a sassy younger actress always armed with a smart quip and the enthusiastic juvenile lead is John Nevins (Daniel Adeosun), whose most notable prior experience has been as one of the children in Porgy and Bess; nonetheless, Manners promises him Hollywood stardom and thereby secures compliance on his production.

Arguably, all Childress’s characters in this play are stereotypes, but that rather strengthens the points which she is making. Joe Bannister is the harassed assistant director wandering around with his clipboard, John Hollingworth has fun hamming it up as the company’s ham actor and Emma Canning is charming as the ingénue being touched inappropriately by her director and pursued ill-advisedly by her leading man. Rounding things off, Gary Lilburn contributes a delightful cameo as the septuagenarian theatre caretaker who has seen it all before.

In staging this highly accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable revival, the National is asking itself and the wider theatre world some intriguing questions. While laughing, audiences should be pondering over how much of 1950s Broadway lingers on this side of the Atlantic today.

Performance date: 9 December 2021