Highly Strung: A Pupil at The Park Theatre

Saturday 24th November 2018, matinée

To be fair, the publicity for this play does not offer a barrel of laughs. We are told that the story starts with a ‘disgraced former violinist’, Ye, preparing to take her life when she is interrupted by the prospect of a new pupil.  We’d like to say that hilarity ensues, but it seems that this glimpse of hope is just the precursor to further despair.

We do not learn much about Ye, but her pupil, Simona, is a self-taught violinist, an apparent prodigy who cannot read music, but has learnt by imitating musicians on youtube.  More importantly she happens to be the daughter of a Russian multi-millionaire – he wants her to get into a top music conservatoire, she only wants to be taught by Ye. With her landlady threatening to evict and no other means of support, Ye reluctantly takes on the challenge.

We do sometimes think it would be nice to see a portrayal of a music teacher who wasn’t a complete sadist.  Not here, unfortunately.  Lucy Sheen does a fantastic job of portraying the teacher from hell who rules with a rod of iron but expects 100% commitment, heart and soul.  She is more than a match for the spoilt rich kid, who annoyingly turns out to be genuinely talented.

Overall the play is dramatically well constructed and engaging.  The ever-shifting power relationships are well portrayed and this is an interesting theme – how do we measure talent?  What does it mean to teach and to learn? Unfortunately this is not fully explored in the play.  Although the characters are intriguing and in the case of Melanie Marshall’s landlady, entertaining, they are mostly underwritten, particularly Ye, and without wanting to second-guess the ending, there is ultimately no real pay-off.

Flora Spencer-Longhurst delivers a virtuoso performance, with a musical delivery which is enough to convince these lay audience members that she might be a child prodigy, but just as impressive is her acting performance, portraying the mercurial intensity of the adolescent who doesn’t yet know what to do with her gift.

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Writing wrongs: Honour at the Park Theatre

Saturday 27th October 2018, matinée (preview)

We are always on the lookout for a new play at the Park Theatre, and when we spotted Henry Goodman as one of the cast members of ‘Honour’ we knew we would be in for an entertaining afternoon, especially when we noted that he would be joined by Imogen Stubbs and Katie Brayben, whose star has deservedly risen since we last saw her in Company at the Southwark Playhouse back in 2011.

‘Honour’ is one of those plays whose plot won’t tell you if it’s any good – it’s the story of the breakup of a marriage, a husband going off with a younger woman, and the resulting fallout. It has been compared to Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, but significantly here the author is a woman, Joanna Murray-Smith. The plot could almost have been chosen for maximum banality, but the story, staged here without any set and barely any props, remains riveting, thanks to a sophisticated exploration of the characters and relationships. The writing is incisive and compelling, and completely unpretentious, and being a revival of a production originally staged in 1995, it has aged very well.

There are just four characters, a husband and wife, a daughter, and the ‘other woman’. The key to the play’s success is that none of them are particularly charismatic or heroic. All have been successful in their own ways, and all have the best of intentions, even as they watch their worlds fall apart. More importantly they are intelligent and articulate, though not particularly self-aware, a powerful combination. Murray-Smith is not really interested in wallowing in emotion or high drama or plot twists, but she weaves a subtle and thoughtful thread of dialogue through situations we might think we already know about, and it is very refreshing and ultimately uplifting.

Henry Goodman gives a well-rounded performance as George, a successful writer who mixes complacency and mild dissatisfaction in equal measure. He starts off the play delivering a hilarious monologue, which seems as first to be some kind of eulogy of a colleague and then turns out to be his attempt to summarise his life for the eager young writer who has come to do a profile on him. He perfectly captures the pompous, vain author anxious not to appear too arrogant, and takes us on a touching journey through his naive attempts to intellectualise his decision to leave his wife, before watching his dreams of a new carefree life crumble as quickly as they had blossomed.

Imogen Stubbs, in the title role, also gives a refreshing take on the ‘wronged wife’. More than a match intellectually for her husband, she finds that he has done her a favour by nurturing a revival of her writing career, giving her both time, space and some new material. In a strong but reserved performance she gives little away, just giving us glimpses of an inner steel which helps her to rise above the stereotype of the woman scorned. Never was there a better embodiment of the motto ‘the best revenge is to live well’.

Katie Brayben gives a quietly terrifying portrait of young ambition as Claudia, the young writer who comes briefly into George’s life and quickly turns it upside down. In a highly skilful performance, she never appears to be manipulative or scheming – she is open and honest about her motives right from the start and manages to cause chaos nonetheless. Determined to love without loss, she realises too late that being loved but unable to love is the ultimate curse. She brings a plausibility and brilliance to the role that makes us think again about love, loyalty and morality.

Natalie Simpson brings refreshing energy which cuts through the abstraction just when we need it – with the judgemental clarity of youth her outbursts are satisfyingly visceral, while her central speech about feeling inarticulate in a family of intellectuals is beautifully and falteringly delivered.

Paul Robinson’s direction is clear and tight and he confidently manages the ‘in-the-round’ format, moving the actors around seamlessly so that everyone gets their fair share of the action. In a set that could feel alienating and cold, he builds a space where emotions run deep and lives are authentically complicated.

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Fine Art: Sancho – An Act of Remembrance at Wilton’s Music Hall

Saturday 16th June 2018, matinée

We have never been to Wilton’s Music Hall before but a fleeting visit from Paterson Joseph with his one-man show ‘Sancho – An Act of Remembrance’ briefly made this a must-visit venue for us.  According to the website, It is the oldest grand music hall in the world.  Not so sure about the grand bit, but it we would certainly agree that is it a little gem and the management clearly have very good taste.

We have always enjoyed Paterson Joseph’s performances and his all too rare appearances on stage.  Here he is disarmingly honest, beginning the show as ‘himself’, and confessing that as a black actor he had always watched with envy as his fellow drama school graduates would snap up the choice roles in costume drama, whilst his opportunities seemed severely limited.  This doesn’t prevent him from treating us to a few lines as Sir Peter Teazle from ‘School for Scandal’ and making us wonder what might have been (or might be!)  He explains that he had always been told that costume drama would be a limited option for him because there were no black people in England before the 20th century. And then he saw a portrait by Gainsborough which changed everything.  Yes, he would have to write the play himself of course, but here at last was a historical character he could get his teeth into.

This is the story of Ignatius Sancho, writer, composer and actor, and the first black man to vote in British Parliamentary elections.  If the title of the play sounds like it might be a little bit worthy, it isn’t.  The play has gravitas, but this is an immersion into the life of the man which gives us everything – silliness, pomposity, humour, intelligence, tragedy and loyalty.  Joseph’s writing is full of literary flourishes and flights of fancy, and his performance had us convinced that this was a figure from history you would definitely want to spend more time with.  We get a sense of joy and exuberance which must have poured out of a man who grew desperate for an education, and when he got it, sucked every last drop of flavour out of it.   Joseph has magnetic charm, intense wit and dark humour always bubbling under the surface and he uses it to great effect here.  This was the London premier of a show that he as been touring extensively, and we hope this is not the last we’ll see of Sancho.  He certainly gets our vote.

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Such stuff as Fun is made of: Return to the Forbidden Planet Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 12th May 2018 (preview)

Ovation Productions at Upstairs at the Gatehouse are never short of ambition.  Not content with carving out a reputation for taking on the major musical theatre classics, they now bring us ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’, a cult musical theatre classic based on a cult movie whose source is Shakespeare’s Tempest.  It completely conforms to our definition of a cult success – it shouldn’t work but it does.  And on our second viewing since Bob Carlton’s creation was first put on in 1990, we can vouch for that.  Stuffed full of classic pop songs from the fifties and sixties and cleverly parodied Shakespearean dialogue, this is a heady cocktail.

This is also another brave choice – the cast have to cover well-known songs made famous but some great singers, and in this production everyone has to turn their hand to a whole variety of instruments and performance skills (zero gravity included), all the time treading a fine line between cod and kitsch.

Overall, Director John Plews has made good use of the limited space with Amy Yardley’s pleasingly garish set, including instrument panels doubling as keyboards.  We have always liked the ‘actor-musician’ style and wished it would get more use, especially since seeing Craig Revel-Horwood’s chamber production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, and in this case it works very well, getting maximum value out of a relatively small cast and bringing high energy to the set pieces.

We should point out at this point that we attended the first preview of the show, so this review does not reflect whatever might happen on press night but there were some technical problems with the sound balance which resulted in some of the vocals being almost completely inaudible.  Dare we say that the traverse staging might have made this a challenge too far, with the added complexity of performers singing and playing instruments all over the playing area?  There were some occasions when things didn’t quite gel, visually or audibly, but the fantastic energy of the cast carried us through and we are happy to assume that these problems will be fixed and give the cast full reign to show off their talents once the show has bedded in.

Talking of talent, Simon Oskarsson is literally in a category of his own, playing ‘airy spirit’ turned robot, Ariel.  And if that sounds like an impossible task, you will understand how impressive this performance was.  Making his professional debut, he takes this unusual role to another level.  Not only is he multi-talented with a lovely singing voice, impressive body-popping, dance, physical theatre, roller skating and some neat trumpet playing, Oskarsson combines these abilities to create a fascinating character, whose curiosity and bewilderment at the ‘data overload’ of human emotions is portrayed with humour and subtlety.  When Miranda sings about having a ‘robot boyfriend’ he doesn’t seem such a bad catch.

Overall, this is a very strong cast, with Christopher Killik creating a charming and eccentric Prospero.  He dominates the stage physically and vocally as a nicely nuanced unintentional villain.  After a relatively quiet first act disguised as the Science Officer on board, Ellie Ann Lowe makes the mother of all entrances when she reveals herself to be Gloria, wife of Prospero, and a woman with unfinished business.  Her vocals are fantastic and she carries off stiletto-heeled thigh high boots fearlessly.  Edward Hole as Cookie brings his unrequited love of Miranda to the boil with a sizzling rendition of ‘She’s Not There’.  Guy Freeman and Lewys Taylor stood out in the supporting cast as crew-members, giving the music a lift at key moments on vocals and guitar – we would have liked to see more of them and we are sure we will.

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The Storm before the Calm: Pressure at the Park Theatre

Saturday 7th April 2018, matinée

The English are famous for the pleasure they take in talking about the weather, a pastime which is often seen as trivial and a form of small talk.  In David Haig’s play, we learn about a historical moment in time when weather was literally a matter of life and death.  He has said that as soon as he heard about the story, he wanted to write about it, and so Pressure was born.

This is the true story of James Stagg, the Scottish meteorologist hired by Eisenhower to forecast the weather for D-Day.  Stagg was hand-picked to work with American celebrity weatherman Irving P. Krick.  He was hired to provide certainty, but Stagg soon realises that the Texan in charge of the D-Day landings has an awful lot to learn about English weather, and the first step towards gaining his trust was to make him understand that the task was almost impossible.

David Haig is better known as an actor than writer, but with his third play his considerable experience and skill as a performer comes through in his assured use of the stage and cast to create the tension, pace, light and shade required to pull the audience in to this story. He is not afraid to give us long pauses in the action and fill the longueurs with lighter sections of dialogue; but when the tension mounts, he fills the stage with actors and keeps the pace at full tilt.  Perhaps one of our favourite moments comes when Stagg has finally persuaded Eisenhower to postpone the invasion in anticipation of a huge storm and comes back to his office alone, with perfect calm visible outside.  Pacing up and down with anticipation he looks obsessively out of the window. ‘Where are you?’ he declaims at the sky, and sure enough the storm that will cement his credibility arrives.  It’s a fantastic bit of stagecraft.

This is a compelling story, not least because its central figure has first to conquer his own doubts before he can convince those in the highest authority.  Even though we know the ‘ending’, this story has us on the edge of our seats.  Haig does not patronise the audience, and somehow makes the scientific information detailed enough to be convincing, while still being accessible, mainly through the use of a series of massive weather charts which appear every few hours, keeping us simultaneously painfully aware of how quickly and how slowly time is passing.  It’s not often that you can say you were on tenterhooks waiting to see which direction that front of low pressure weather has moved in.

It is hard to believe that David Haig originally wrote the play not intending to play the lead part, but we are very glad he changed his mind.  He perfectly captures the qualities that we can imagine made Eisenhower believe in the man.  There is a complete absence of ego and posturing, just irritation at the lack of organisation and equipment needed for the job. Haig radiates integrity, with a portrayal that is not afraid to show us an interior life with all its insecurities and suppressed emotions.

Haig is ably supported by a relatively large cast, but the stand out supporting characters are Eisenhower himself and Kay Summersby, his driver, assistant and, some have claimed, lover.  Laura Rogers delivers a spirited performance as a historical figure who embodies the dilemma of many women during the war – despite the horror she dreads the end of the war and what she sees as the end of her usefulness, having strayed too far from a traditional feminine role to ever go back.  Malcolm Sinclair makes a personable Eisenhower, humorous but with the kind of authority that means he doesn’t have to try too hard to assert himself.

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Naked Ambition: Napoleon Disrobed at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 17th February 2018, matinée

We’ve been keeping an eye out for some time for the next production from ‘Told By An Idiot’, having enjoyed previous productions so much, and judging by their website, we haven’t done a very good job.  This is an incredibly prolific and creative company, and refreshingly not particularly London-centric.  However, we did manage to find out about ‘Napoleon Disrobed’ at the Arcola Theatre and, on the basis of the title alone, booked immediately.

There’s nothing quite like an alternative history story, and this production is unlike any alternative history we’ve ever seen.  Perhaps the all-pervasive sense that nothing is quite real adds to a feeling that anything could have happened, couldn’t it?  In this case, Napoleon switched places with a sailor and escaped his exile on St Helena, only to have his imposter die shortly afterwards, making it impossible to reclaim his power and implement his plan.

It is hard to pinpoint ‘Told By An Idiot’s’ style as such – it more an intangible sense of drama that they create, usually by focusing attention on the details that most dramatists ignore in favour of more lofty affairs.  And there is always an underlying sense of absurd humour – ‘You look exactly like me!’ proclaims the stout middle-aged red-head Paul Hunter to his partner in crime Ayesha Antoine, a slim young black woman.  And so the adventure begins, with the whole stage transformed into a ship, literally rolling and pitching as Napoleon makes his journey to freedom.

Trying to find a group of supporters who have sworn to stay loyal and return him to power, he finds himself unrecognised, and making the best of it, creates a bizarre life with ‘Ostrich’ a young woman whose melon business is failing.  He revives the business and they settle into a domestic routine.  But the pull of his now ‘alternative’ reality as Napoleon remains, as he sneaks out and puts on his costume, and exhorts the audience to indulge in a series of small rebellions which he hopes will kickstart the revolution.  Inevitably, he is led away to an asylum where he discovers that there many, many people who think they are Napoleon.

But it is not really the plot that is important (it is based on ‘The Death of Napoleon’ by Simon Leys, which sounds like an intriguing read) – it is the sense of life taking over, both the joys which distract us (symbolised here by an insane game of ping-pong with inflatable melons – you had to be there), and the routine which wears us down and blunts ambition. We get the sense that this humdrum existence is no less appropriate for the world’s most power-hungry man than a more conventional tale of heroics and political ambition. Disrobed both literally and metaphorically, what gives him the right to claim anything greater?

Told By An Idiot excel at finding a tangent on everything they do, and here they give us a tantalising sense of what might have been. Our only complaint would be that at just an hour and a quarter, they really do leave us wanting more in this case.

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Tapping into Hollywood: Top Hat Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Friday 26th January 2018

Not content with bringing the most famous Gene Kelly movie to the tiny Upstairs at the Gatehouse stage three years ago with Singin’ in the Rain, the team have decided to give Fred Astaire the same treatment, by bringing ‘Top Hat’ to the Highgate pub theatre stage.
The plot gets no awards for originality, and apparently even when the film came out in the 1930s, people were complaining that it was copied from a previous Fred Astaire film, ‘The Gay Divorcee’.  The story hinges on a highly improbably case of mistaken identity which, in this production, is delivered with complete conviction by the whole cast.  It’s not exactly a comedy drama masterpiece, but the combination of gorgeous songs by Irving Berlin, zinging one-liners and over the top cameo roles kept us surprisingly well-entertained.
Dance superstar Jerry Travers (no prizes for guessing who played this part in the film), comes to London to make his West End debut, and falls in love with model and socialite Dale Tremont, who unfortunately has mistaken him for his agent Horace Hardwick, who happens to be married to her friend.

Subtlety is not required from the supporting cast, and on that note Matthew James Willis delivers a full throttle performance as the vain and preening Alberto Beddini, the Italian fashion designer who is devoted to dressing Dale Tremont in the hope that one day she might let him undress her.  Samuel Haughton also has some fine comic moments as Bates, Hardwick’s valet, especially once he is given a special undercover assignment to ‘spy’ on Dale by Hardwick, who is convinced that she is out to ‘entrap’ Jerry.  More Clouseau than Poirot, he is delightfully dedicated to the task as he gets more and more out of his depth, before miraculously rescuing the situation at the end.

Darren Benedict does a very good job of portraying Hardwick, a man so put-upon that even his valet bullies him.  He spends most of the time in a state of bewilderment as his well-meant schemes go wrong and he finds himself the scapegoat for everybody else’s shenanigans.  In a well-paced performance, his frenetic anxiety gradually calms to quiet despair before he finally reaches a negotiated truce with his wife and finds a form of contentment.

Ellen Verenieks is sparkling as Madge, Harwick’s wife.  When we hear him talk about his wife, we feel sorry for her.  When we meet her in the second half, we feel sorry for him. Verenieks has some fantastic one-liners which she delivers with vicious sang-froid, but underneath the detached humour is a warmth which comes through at the end when she realises that she has more to lose than she thought.

Joshua Lay has boyish charm and the kind of boundless energy perfectly suited to a self-proclaimed sufferer of ‘tapititis’, the condition which apparently excuses him from tap-dancing all night on a wooden floor in his hotel room.  He brings plenty of pace to the dancing, although we thought he could have occasionally afforded to slow down a bit and savour the moves.  We expected Joanne Clifton to be a good dancer, having heard of her connection to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, but she really showed how an experienced and accomplished dancer could lift the mood, with a gracefulness that pervaded the smallest of movements.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that she had a lovely singing voice too, and a wonderfully warm and engaging stage presence which raised her above the typical ‘love interest’ of the day.

And now we come to our customary comments about the traverse staging (where the playing space is a narrow strip in the middle, with the audience lined up on either side), which again severely limited the ability of the 12 strong cast to really let rip with the dance numbers.  With so much talent available, it was frustrating to find that the choreography had to conform to a very small and bizarrely shaped space.  We were even starting to recognise certain moves designed to get over the limitations of the space, and although there was a raised platform at one end, this tended to be wasted.  We know the space is flexible, so we live in hope that one year Ovation productions will give the good old ‘pros arch’ layout a try.

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