Art to Enchant: The Tempest at Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday 14th March 2020, matinee

Jermyn Street Theatre, fast becoming our favourite West End Theatre, has given us the perfect chance to see Michael Pennington close up, and tick off another Shakespeare play – The Tempest.  And all in a space so small you can pretend that some actors have come round to your house to perform in your living room.

The plot is more of a device to explore the vagaries of the human condition, as Prospero is ousted from his Dukedom in Milan by his brother and left stranded on a remote island.  He learns magic (well he has a lot of time on his hands), enslaves the two remaining inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) and bides his time for 12 years, waiting for his revenge. This character makes Hamlet seem positively impulsive.  We join the action as he finally has the chance to get even and punish his persecutors, but what will he do?

The set design makes the small space of Jermyn Street into an asset, realistic but spare, the audience are forced to imagine an internal landscape which is limitless.  The magic is not overdone, but presented in a very matter-of-fact way, as something no less wondrous and men being prepared to kill each other for power.  Prospero doesn’t so much manipulate as facilitate each character to show their real selves.  Hence with some clever double casting Ferdinand embraces his enslavement and uses it to earn the love of Miranda, in stark contrast to Caliban who abuses his host’s trust to assault her.

This is believed to be Shakespeare’s last solo play, the culmination of years of dedication to theatre.  Michael Pennington has also enjoyed a long career of acting, studying, writing about and teaching Shakespeare, and as Prospero, he brings a depth to the play that sets the whole tone of the production.  He starts the play with a mystical spell which starts the surreal action of the play, and then casts a spell over us, whether he is bringing to life some of Shakespeare’s most famous words when he is centre stage, or watching over the choas he has created.

Tom littler directs an excellent cast and keeps the tone natural and real, bringing out the humanity of the play.  As Ariel, Whitney Kehinde has a lightness of touch that convinces us she could be an invisible spirit with magical powers. She moves like a whirlwind around the tiny space, always graceful and with a gracious sense of benevolence and good humour as she indulgences Prospero’s every wish.

Kirsty Bushell is a fresh and energetic Miranda, unworldly but not foolish.  Tam Williams effortlessly moves between the roles of Ferdinand and Caliban with minimal costume changes and just his physicality and voice to help him.  Richard Derrington and Peter Bramhill also double up as two successful double acts.

This production seems to capture the sense of this play as a very personal, almost autobiographical, expression of Shakespeare’s reflections on his own life.  It is a farewell gift of a great writer to relinquish control and set the spirit free.

We should note that we were very lucky to see this production, which closed after 6 performances.  Jermyn Street hope to revive the play and are currently crowdfunding for a gala opening performance – if you want to help you can go here.

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Boiling Point: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Saturday 26th October 2019, matineé

We’ve been on the look-out for a revival of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and when we saw that Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner were going to be starring in the play at the Trafalgar studios, we booked immediately, thinking they might possibly have found the dream cast – Stephens with his considerable talent for dark comedy, and Skinner with her effortless ability to exude unfeasible levels of patience and good humour.

It is hard to believe this play was written just over 50 years ago – the theme of parents grappling with the care of a profoundly disabled child is as current as ever, and this courageous exploration of the dilemmas they face stands the test of time – few playwrights have combined such frankness with such empathy since.

The play centres around Brian and Sheila and their daughter Josephine, and shines a spotlight onto a single day in their lives, whilst telling the family’s story through a series of vignettes.  Near the end of the play, a family friend tells Brian that his relentless gallows humour, something which perhaps started as a coping strategy, has turned into a slow poison which is slowly killing him from the inside out.  Ironically, it felt to us that it was the relaxed, Vaudevillian, and darkly comic style of the play that lets the audience in too, without scaring us off.  Whatever, difficulties they face, we can see that this couple have lost none of their humanity.  Crucially they are not saints.  The play is fierce in its determination to break through the taboos and cliches that surround disability, illness and parenting.

This production gives the play a light, naturalistic touch, in a relatively small space, with a fantastic cast.  Toby Stephens uses his comedic abilities to the full, bursting onto the stage with a classic teacher’s monologue to the class, in which he harangues members of the audience.  However, we soon start to realise that he is quietly driving himself mad with his own thoughts, in a domestic atmosphere where there is no place for pessimism.  He is part of the ‘menagerie’, his feelings just another thing for matriarch Sheila to ‘manage’.  There are some joyful moments of pure slapstick, but Stephens’ performance is driven by an inner agitation that never switches off, whether he is trying to steal a kiss over a cup of tea, or contemplating the unthinkable.  It makes for a riveting performance, brimming over with energy but never showy.

Claire Skinner has another kind of extraordinary energy.  She has the unenviable job of portraying a character of unshakeable inner strength, whose main tragedy, it emerges, is that however hard she tries, she cannot instill her sense of optimism and unconditional love into her husband.  The dynamics of the drama demand her to be a constant, still, presence, and she rises to the task with absolute integrity.  She brings humour, compassion and pain in equal measure to the part.

Amongst a strong supporting cast, we have to give a mention to Clarence Smith as the well-intentioned Freddie, a rich socialist who is determined to ‘help’, and whose main crime is having no sense of humour.  He steadfastly resists the temptation as an actor to point ironically at his character’s frailties.

We have commented before on diversity in theatre, following a controversy about the casting of Brad Fraser’s play ‘Kill Me Now‘, and the far-reaching impact of including disabled people.

This production boasts a very important first, according to the Evening Standard – the first time that a disabled actor has been cast in the role of Josephine in the West End. Storme Toolis, who has cerebral palsy, commented that “I definitely feel that as a disabled actor there are interesting familiar relationships in this play, but I don’t draw a lot on my own experiences.  Everybody is different, so my job is to portray Joe’s story.”

Director Simon Evans said “Putting a more able-bodied actor in the role might have made for a more sentimental performance and Storme is unsentimental about her condition.  She has, in a way, given people a huge permission to talk this way about a disabled person.”

 

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A chip on his shoulder? Shackleton’s Carpenter at Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday 3rd August 2019, matinee

The story of Shackleton’s heroic failure on the ice floes of the Antarctic seems to have an endless fascination.  What could capture the imagination better than an expedition which set out to be the first to cross the antarctic by land, a ship which got trapped and then crushed in the ice, and a bid for survival which involved an even more extraordinary journey, with no loss of life.  And all photographed with exquisite beauty by Frank Hurley.

Harry McNish, the ship’s carpenter, was widely credited with saving lives through his ingenuity in constantly scavenging and re-purposing the expedition’s meagre resources to ‘recondition’ a lifeboat which miraculously managed an 800 mile journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

At the heart of this one man drama is the burning injustice that McNish was denied the polar medal, an honour given to all but four of the crew, despite Shackleton grudgingly admitting that McNish had probably saved all their lives.  He couldn’t stomach McNish’s ‘insubordination’ even though he had admitted that he right.  What follows is an exploration of how class divides still persist, even in the most desperate situations – as a working class man, albeit a master craftsman, McNish could never be seen to be superior to the aristocratic captain in any way.

Gail Louw’s play brilliantly captures the ramblings of a drunken man at the end of his life when he is living destitute on a wharf in new Zealand.  It is a very personal account where trivialities take on an exaggerated importance – having his cat shot, being referred to as the ‘old carpenter’ despite being a few months younger than Shackleton, and Shackleton’s  steadfast refusal to admit to him that he was right.  Ironically the polar medal seems to rank quite low in his list of priorities.   He gets his revenge though in an imagined dialogue where he ponders whether Shackleton’s wife asked that he be buried in South Georgia where he had died on his last expedition, so that his mistress could not visit his grave.

Malcolm Rennie delivers a visceral narrative, full of emotion – the romanticism of adventure swept away by the raw pain of knife-edge survival.  He engages the audience in an apparently unselfconscious way, mostly lost in his own thoughts, not trying to persuade or charm us, just letting us briefly into his world.

This production certainly packs a lot into its 70 minute running time, but we did feel a little short-changed with tickets priced at £30.  We can’t help feeling that if the play can’t be lengthened, perhaps a double-bill could have been on offer – there must be plenty of complementary stories.

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A universal message from The Starry Messenger at Wyndham’s Theatre

The Starry Messenger

Thursday 16th May 2019

We’ve been waiting a long time to see Matthew Broderick on the London stage.  For a while, there was talk that he might come over with the Broadway production of the musical version of ‘The Producers’ back in the early noughties, but nearly twenty years later, we were very pleased to find that we would finally see Broderick in the West End, in a play by Kenneth Lonergan, who we have admired for a long time, ever since seeing his plays ‘This is Our Youth’ and ‘Lobby Hero’, and his subsequent films.  This play, The Starry Messenger is a revival from ten years ago, and more than deserving of a trip over the pond.

The play, like a lot of Lonergan’s work, is not exactly plot-driven.  It revolves around an astronomer, Mark Williams, who feels he has probably ‘gone as far as he can’ in academia, and is now getting by on various lecturing jobs, including a beginner’s class for adults at the planetarium, while he watches his former students overtake him on the career ladder.
It is hard to describe the plot, as Broderick hilariously found when he appeared on the Graham Norton show and was amiably berated by the host for not selling his appearance in the West End sufficiently well.  What we can say is that Lonergan is a master chronicler of the human condition.  Astronomy is the perfect starting point, and we have never thought of the ironic counterpoint between the vastness of the universe and the challenges of comprehension it presents to atheists and believers alike, and the banality of the work which has led us to better understand it.  So, on the one hand, Williams is criticised by his pupils for being insufficiently inspiring, and yet he is still so enthralled by astronomy that at the age of 52 he is prepared to take a basic data entry job on a research project just to be part of something bigger.

Matthew Broderick has the great challenge of portraying this ‘boring’ character without being boring.  He pulls off this miracle by being disarmingly authentic.  His delivery is confident with a small ‘c’ – he is unhurried, he does not feel the need to ‘dramatise’ the material, he does not attempt to ‘engage’ his audience.  The result is an inner stillness that lets us in to this small, uncertain, world.  We are also treated to some top-quality passive-aggression from a master of the art.  Perhaps our favourite moment is the interminably long gap between being ruthlessly critiqued by one of his students and the expletive-filled reposte which follows long after he has left the room.  This is a performance well worth waiting for and an object lesson in how to allow the writing do its work.

Elizabeth McGovern pitches her performance as Williams’ long-suffering wife perfectly.  At first she appears to be a lightweight foil for Broderick’s brooding persona, airy, optimistic and apparently oblivious, but by the end we learn what supreme effort goes into maintaining her cheerful demeanour as she tries to manage a household with a man who won’t make decisions with her, but blames her for everything.  Never has the repetition of the phrase ‘Can we talk about Christmas?’ at various stages in the evening taken on such portent as it does here.

Rosalind Eleazar portrays Angela, a young woman who decides to add further complications to her already busy life by having an affair with Williams.  She brings a freshness and warmth to the play as a character who wears her heart on her sleeve, and the comic chemistry with Broderick is a pleasure to watch.

Sam Yates has gathered an impressive cast for all his supporting characters.  We have the legendary Jim Norton, known for playing Father Ted’s nemesis Bishop Brennan in the channel 4 series, coming through a brush with death at the hospital where Angela works, to give her the spiritual advice she needs; we have Jenny Galloway, the original Mrs Thernadier from Les Miserables, as a student who is desperate to learn about astronomy (we never quite find out why) but just doesn’t get it, as she loudly proclaims at every opportunity.  Sid Sagar entertains as the student (there’s always one, isn’t there?) who feels the need to provide unsolicited feedback, a task he is determined to complete in the face of overwhelming indifference.

We’ve got a feeling the running time may shorten a little during previews, but this is a meaty play, unapologetic about its 3 hour plus running time, and full of insight and humour – it doesn’t feel a minute too long.

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An Evening at the melancholy manor: Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s

Saturday 27th May 2019, evening

It’s been a while since we were tempted into the West End for Kenneth Branagh’s takeover of the Garrick Theatre.  The combination of Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell in a new Ibsen play (new to us that is), directed by Ian Rickson, who impressed us so greatly with his direction of Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, seemed like a winner.

It’s no coincidence, we feel, that the play is named after the Manor House rather than the characters that live in it.  Possibly the most important character in the play, symbolising the constraints of society, the house dominates the village, and Rae Smith’s design has it looming large over the action, so much so that it almost felt like we were sitting in the drawing room.

In this new adaptation by Duncan MacMillan we are reminded how current Ibsen’s themes remain.  Set on the eve of an election, Rosmer, the young master of the house, is assailed on all sides by friends and old acquaintances wanting him to lend his ‘voice’ to their cause. First his former brother-in-law, who fears chaos if the ordinary people are put in control, then his radical former tutor.  Meanwhile, he discovers that his closest female friend and confidante Rebecca West (the character who gave her name to the famous feminist author), has infiltrated his home in order to ‘turn’ him to radical politics, but is now in love with him.  Former pastor Rosmer, who is already struggling with his faith and his identity, soon has to face up to the hypocrisy of politics, where it is suggested that he will only be of use if he continues to profess to be a Christian.

The play is not so much a drama as an exploration of the myriad ways in which two people can make themselves miserable.  Ibsen is a master of the inner landscape of the mind.  Whilst everybody around them assumes that they are already lovers, we see that it is not just social constrictions but their own peculiar combination of guilt and lack of purpose that ensures they will never be free, or think that they will never be free, which in the end comes to the same thing.

Rickson’s direction allows the story to play out without fuss – the real-time action is excruciatingly minimal, but the re-evaluation of the past which each character must undergo re-writes the story constantly, with an unforgiving pay-off at the end.
Hayley Atwell is utterly convincing as Rebecca, a woman who believes she will lose her integrity as a person if she marries, but whose ideals are being eaten away by her passionate longing for Rosmer.  Tom Burke has a refreshing lack of pomposity, at odds with his social and political status, allowing us to glimpse the emptiness of a man who feels he should ‘do something’ but literally does not have the courage of his convictions.  However, we were not convinced of the chemistry between the two.

In a strong supporting cast, Giles Terera stood out as Governer Kroll, whose benign bemusement at the lack of support from his former brother-in-law is enough to show where the real power lies, whilst Peter Wight’s touching portrayal of the impoverished radical turned scrounger Brendel is epitomised by the eagerness with which he devours the leftover fermented trout at the dinner table.

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Driving Miss Olive: Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 30th March 2019, matinée

Little Miss Sunshine seems like perfect material for William Finn – it’s a quirky film full of dark humour, and continues the theme of child exploitation which he explored in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  Here it is the world of beauty pageants with the unlikely heroine Olive showing her dysfunctional family the meaning of the word optimism.  There is luxury casting here too in the form of Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Paul Keating.

Based on the 2006 film, this is a classic feel-good plot, given a ‘makeunder’ and a dose of reality as the hopelessly chaotic Hoover family attempt to get their daughter Olive to the regional finals of the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty pageant in a beaten up old minivan. With Mum Cheryl and Dad Richard already feeling the strain, brother Dwayne under a vow of silence, and Grandpa now homeless having been kicked out of his retirement home for taking drugs, they are joined by Cheryl’s brother Frank, who needs to be kept an eye on due to his recent suicide attempt (‘Don’t worry’, she reassures the kids, ‘He didn’t try very hard’).

So, with an amusing premise, interesting characters and the comedic potential of a road trip, what could possibly go wrong?  The production team have given themselves a massive challenge to stage a road trip in the small space of the Arcola theatre, and it is a tribute to Mehmet Ergan’s directorial skills that he manages to make such a slick job of it, but it is difficult to keep the momentum going.  Although the dialogue is snappy with plenty of witty lines, there are also longueurs that could probably have been cut.

The next question would be, what, if anything, does the music add to the story?  Music should be a short-cut to the emotions and perhaps illuminate the relationships, but here the songs seem to hold up the action.  There are too many characters vying for attention, but no individuals have enough depth to sustain the solo songs, which also seem a bit thin.  There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme or a character arc for the family. Considering the show is all about the tawdry glamour of talent shows, we couldn’t help feeling there were some missed opportunities here.

The cast were excellent overall, and it was hard to fault the ensemble playing.  We did feel that Laura Pitt-Pulford was a little under-used – perhaps if William Finn had been more involved he might have written her an extra number to show off her considerable talents.  Paul Keating, last seen by us in the Goodbye Girl, brings a melancholic and neurotic edge to the show, nicely offset by Gary Wilmot’s outrageous Grandad – it’s a gift of a part and he enjoys it to the full.  The supporting cast also provides a few gems – Ian Carlyle as the compere perfectly captures the small-time, preening local businessman looking for glory, whilst Imelda Warren-Green gives us the world’s most unempathic ‘bereavement co-ordinator’, and a beauty queen whose estimation of her own talent is optimistic at best.

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Way Out West: Outlying Islands at the King’s Head

Sunday 20th January 2018, matinée

Having seen two plays by David Grieg, the chilling Letter of Last Resort put on as part of an excellent season of plays about nuclear weapons, and The Kid, a disturbing exploration of drone warfare, we were keen to see more.  A revival of ‘Outlying Islands’ at the King’s Head, brought to us by the producers of the fantastic East at the same venue, promised some intriguing subject matter.

The story is a simple one – two young men, fresh out of University, are chosen by the ‘ministry’ to spend what might be their last Summer of freedom on a remote Scottish Island studying rare seabirds.  It is 1939 and what seems at first to be a dream posting takes a very dark turn indeed.  The play explores the culture clash between the escapism of the young men, who want to immerse themselves in what they see as the simplicity and power of raw nature, and the escapism of the locals, in particular the island’s owner, Mr Kirk, who is desperate to find a buyer so that he can sell up and escape to ‘civilisation’.
Enforced isolation brings out the complexities of all their relationships. Grieg’s writing is skilled, rich in subtext and full of dark power.  His characters are complex and well-drawn, relatable but not stereotypical, and the pace is carefully controlled.   We feel the boredom and routine, and a vague sense of doom.  There is a political context too, with the young men soon discovering that they are not on a nature trip at all, but a grim ‘inventory of life’, in preparation for a weapons-testing programme that they only hear about by accident. The personal and political blend perfectly, as the naive young men come to terms with the realities of war while the tough old landowner calculates the compensation he will receive with every sheep and bird that goes ‘out of commission’.

The four-strong cast do a fantastic job of carrying us away to this distant and evocative land. Tom Machell as Robert and Jack McMillan as Johnny have a convincing sense of cameraderie, bringing a youthful intensity to their relationship which sometimes feels like that of an old married couple.  The arguments which we sense have taken place too many times to mention, and the multilayered bond of shared passions, ambition, and unrequited love.  Johnny is febrile and neurotic, an unlikely adventurer, and Robert, dashing and edgy, fulfills the role of the reckless lone wolf only at great personal cost.  Together they are by turns over-earnest and hilarious.

Ken Drury as Mr Kirk exudes toughness, common sense and humour in equal measures, with a terrifying turn in religious zeal, targeted mainly at his niece.  Rose Wardlaw is Ellen, Mr Kirk’s niece, who has been ‘contaminated’ by exposure to ‘the movies’ and is full to bursting with earthly desires, whether for humour, stories or sex.  Wardlaw creates a complex character who, though often silent, always has an inner life.  Watching and waiting, she is the catalyst and life-force who changes everything.  Her impatience is infectious and compelling.

We couldn’t finish without mentioning the set, another triumph for this venue, which always seems to manage to create an immersive atmosphere in a very small space which enhances the production.  Here we have a minimal but convincing evocation of the semi-underground ‘hut’, and the added bonus of an almost indescribable ‘smell’ which certainly lives up to the numerous exclamations by the characters of ‘it stinks in here’!  Definitely a multi-sensory experience……..

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Three of the Best: The Cane at the Royal Court

Saturday 12th January 2019, matinée

It’s been a long time since we went to the Royal Court, nearly 8 years, but we were lured back there by the prospect of seeing Nicola Walker in a play with an intriguing subject – the cane.

The play is set in the home of a deputy headteacher who is about to retire, but whose preparations for his retirement ‘do’ are increasingly overshadowed by a growing mob of pupils who are gathering outside his house, throwing a brick through the window.  Is it because they have found out that years ago he was the teacher responsible for caning children?  Add to that an unfavourable inspection from Ofsted which must be challenged, and this is far from a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

At 100 minutes, the play whizzes by, with writing that is both witty and slick.  The interplay between the deputy headteacher (Alun Armstrong) and his estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) is a pleasure to watch.  She has followed him into the field of education, but in his mind has joined the ‘enemy’, the Academy movement, of which she is an almost fanatical advocate, and he can’t work out if she has come back to help him regain control of ‘his’ school or to gloat as it is swallowed up in the ignominy of being a failing school.  Maggie Steed meanwhile takes maternal cruelty to new lengths until we discover that she may have been more or a victim than a bully.

Our main issue with the play is that we couldn’t decide whether it was an ‘issue play’ or a family drama, an indication that something hasn’t quite gelled, as it should be possible to do both seamlessly.  There were also certain distractions which made it hard to engage with the drama.  The set is a deliberately semi-naturalistic affair with minimal furniture and half-finished stairs, making the house look a little like a bomb site. Yet there is no real reason for it and there is something intensely irritating about watching three people hover around one dining chair and a low coffee table.  Yes, this is a dysfunctional family, but there is no reason to believe they don’t have normal furniture.  If you are going to go minimal, just do it, but a halfway house tends to reinforce the impression that the play itself is half-baked.  There is also a very elaborate attic which appears halfway through, but despite many descriptions of it being chock-full of stuff, it appears empty.

The writing too seems slightly unrealistic and lacking in nuance.  Some of the events are hard to believe, for example the deputy headteacher’s wife, herself a former teacher, allowing pupils from the school to run riot in the attic; the idea that a mob of children would be allowed to assemble for days in suburbia without the police being called is also somewhat far-fetched.  There is plenty of interesting and entertaining exposition, but the voice of the mother is strangely absent, and the debate, which seems to settle on a teaching ‘dinosaur’ and caner of children against a devotee of the academisation of schools couldn’t be more polarised.  It almost feels like a pair of straw people tearing shreds out of each other, which perhaps reflects what goes on in dysfunctional families, but if the intention was to provide some insight into the modern education system, that aim was not fulfilled.

The Cane remains an entertaining watch, full of satisfying dialogue, some surprising moments, and overall a piece of drama raised up by an excellent cast.

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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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