Saturday, 8 December 2018

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Judy Kuhn and Andy Nyman

One can only wonder if, when Fiddler On The Roof was being scheduled for the Menier over this Christmas season, that the producers were aware that the chill winds of antisemitism that whip through the show’s narrative would again be so prevalent in the UK. For rarely does a show present such a polarised contrast between a glorious celebration of life and the stark reality of man’s inhumanity.

Trevor Nunn helms this latest outing of the Broadway classic and together with a gifted cast and crew alongside the unique intimacy of the Menier’s space, he crafts a charming interpretation of life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Andy Nyman steps up to the role of Tevye, beautifully bearded, he makes fine work of perhaps the world’s most famous milkman. The role is massive – in both its vocal and physical demands, as well as the emotional spectrum that defines Tevye’s journey. If Nyman is not quite there yet with some of the more finely nuanced moments, he is a gifted performed who will surely settle into the songs’ full ranges as the show matures. He does however capture the worldly, weary wisdom of the beloved husband and father he portrays, bringing an authenticity to the role that catches the audience’s feelings at unexpected moments. There is a depth to his Tevye that has, quite possibly, not been witnessed on these shores since Topol.

Judy Kuhn is Golde, bringing her recent previous experience of the role from Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production. Again, and for the first time in decades over here, Kuhn brings an authentic credibility to Tevye’s spouse, offering a clearly defined relief to the complexities and triumphs that have seen her's and Tevye's 25 year old marriage become such a strong family bedrock.

Not just at the top, there is inspirational casting throughout Nunn’s compay. The always excellent Louise Gold delivers a perfect Yente, taking a tiny role and breathing a new life into its significance. Dermot Canavan’s Lazar Wolf captures the wealthy butcher's financial power within Anatevka's tiny community and yet, ultimately, his vulnerability too. As Perchik, Stewart Clarke convinces as a young Jewish firebrand. There is, perhaps, a little more that all three of the adult daughters could bring to their respective roles and challenges – but to say any more would be unnecessarily harsh, for above all this Fiddler is a work of rare beauty.

And that beauty is essentially derived from Nunn’s inspired staging. Robert Jones' design transforms the Menier with aged timbers encompassing the whole space, hinting at the impoverished architecture of the shtetl. And yet, amidst this darkened wood and with the company playing out in the venue’s thrust space, audience raked around them on three sides, there is almost a hint of an Eastern European synagogue settled upon the theatre. So much so that in the first act's wedding scene, as Motel stamps upon the glass to seal his marriage to Tzeitel, this reviewer felt more akin to being a guest at the wedding, rather than just a critical audience member. It was as much as one could do to hold back from joining in with the cast and shouting a hearty “Mazeltov” from the third row!

Nunn delivers inspirational work on Tevye’s Dream too, always a moment of comedy horror when done well. Intriguingly, the performer playing Grandmother Tzeitel is not credited in the programme, but one detects however that perhaps an both an age and gender swap has occurred in the old lady's casting (and actually, it works brilliantly too!)

And there is quality too across the show’s creative team. Matt Cole offers up a worthy working of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, while Jason Carr’s orchestrations and Paul Bogaev’s direction bring a verve to Jerry Bock’s score. 

In short – this production is both an imaginative yet also reassuringly traditional take on a much loved show. In eschewing any trendy political statement to hang around his work, Nunn has made it all the more poignant and powerful. Deservedly sold out for the rest of its Menier run, his Fiddler On The Roof is a must-see musical.

Runs until 9th March 2019
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Aladdin - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written and directed by Susie McKenna

Clive Rowe
There’s something truly magical about panto at the Hackney Empire. Writer/director Susie McKenna delivers her 20th (oh yes it is!) festive production with a show that captures the diversity of her London patch, yet cleverly avoids cultural appropriation and all the while managing to maintain the joyous irreverence that makes pantomime such a glorious British Christmas tradition.

Set on the fictional island of Ha-Ka-Ney, McKenna’s company of Mare Street stalwarts launders the age-old Middle-Eastern cum Chinese fairytale into a 21st century iteration that it is anything but washed out. Obeying the genre’s conventions meticulously, Gemma Sutton is the titular Principal Boy (as McKenna lobs in a bravely scripted swipe at gender-fluidity too!). Sutton of course, as this website has long proclaimed, is up there with the best of her generation in UK’s musical theatre and it shows! She brings poise and precision to the role, capping it off with her wondrous voice. Her leading the company in The Greatest Showman’s This Is Me is spine-tingling.

Making his return to Hackney’s panto after a short sabbatical, Clive Rowe shares the bill-topping honours with his wonderful Widow Twankey. Showmen aside, Rowe is arguably The Greatest Dame of our time. His presence is sublime with razor sharp wit and precision timing making each one of the corniest, smuttiest gags sparkle. Rowe’s gift for pantomime is a rarity and his beautifully frocked, twerking Twankey is worth the ticket price on its own.

In time-honoured tradition, McKenna lampoons the lunacy of our leaders, with Brexit and assorted Tories coming in for some well-deserved flack. But if there is one criticism of the piece, it is the bias. Given the current debacle that is manifest throughout our political class, there is no reason to have let Labour off the hook quite so lightly.

Other top-notch Hackney regulars comprise the classy company. Notables are Tameka Empson, released by the Beeb from her duties on Albert Square to play the Empress, Julie Yammanee’s Princess, Kat B's energetic Genie and Tony Timberlake’s dastardly Abanazar. Heck, they’ve even roped in stage legend (and Mckenna’s missus) Sharon D. Clarke to voice a Goddess!

Whilst the show’s budget may not be as palladian as some, not only are Hackney’s tickets affordable but the show's professionalism and panache are a treat, well earning it the moniker of “London’s No 1 panto”. McKenna continues to create the very essence of pantomime - a show that is firmly rooted in its local community, yet packing a hilarious punch with technical excellence. (And did this review even mention Steven Edis' music, the stunning flying dragon scene or Richard Roe’s super-slick tap-dance routine?)

Meanwhile Clive Rowe's Widow Twankey, masquerading as Cher and serenading Abanazar with ABBA’s Fernando, will stay with me for a long, long time.

Runs until 6th January 2019
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Hot Gay Time Machine - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss

Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow

You enter a dark basement in the heart of the West End. RuPaul is blaring, lights are flashing and there is dancing. Yet this is not a club. Instead it’s Hot Gay Time Machine.

What is that, exactly? It’s hot, and gay and a time machine, so proclaim co-writers Toby Marlow and Zak Ghazi-Torbati (the third member of this creative team is Lucy Moss). A not entirely helpful answer but one that does provide an indication of what’s to follow in the ensuing 75 minutes.

This show tells a version of the performers’ stories, specifically those incidents that bear relation to their identities - such as coming out to their mums, navigating school and finding a gay best friend. It’s a story about their friendship, packaged up in a musical ‘extravaGAYNza' comedy cabaret.

They - the Hot Gays and Lucy - describe this show as a joke that’s gone too far. It was an idea that escalated into an actual commitment at their university and was produced on a £400 budget in a week.

We know that Marlow and Moss can write fantastically sharp songs. They are, after all, the creators of SiX: The Musical - the award-winning hit show - and something that the former pleasingly refers to on stage. With Ghazi-Torbati added into the mix, the result is even sharper and, on occasion, close-to-the-bone humour. Its a trifecta of witty lyrics, pop music structures and strong vocal performances that delivers immense joy.

The beauty of a production like this is that it allows for performers’ personalities to shine through with a full beam, beyond what is intrinsically woven into the script and score. It’s the moments where they break character as a result of ad libs or improvisation that heighten the laughs. This fluidity works well in the Trafalgar's bijou Studio 2, a veritable cockpit where no expression goes unseen.

Standout elements include songs such as ‘Couldn’t Get It Up’, Marlow’s pink hot pants and both performers’ flawless make-up looks. - and all of the sass. Marlow’s character is the more cutting of the two, while Ghazi-Torbati’s is the sweeter foil.

A former Edinburgh hit, it’s now been transplanted to London’s West End, while firmly maintaining its Fringe feel. It’s a tricky challenge to address; how do you maintain a balance between raw creativity and a polished production? But this team manages to strike the right chord.

In a very fitting end, the show ends with a standing ovation, followed by a dance party and, finally, a sashay away.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

True West - Review

Vaudeville Theatre, London


Written by Sam Shepherd
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn

Squeezed into a lean and tightly filled two hours, Sam Shepherd’s True West is an acerbic glimpse of domestic dysfunctionality that plays out in sweltering Southern California, a blasted backfiring of the American Dream.

In this piece of exquisite theatre Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn are brothers Austin and Lee. The Ivy League educated Austinis apparently the slicker of the two, with a promising career beckoning as a Hollywood screenwriter. Lee, who initially suggests echoes of Oklahoma’s Jud, is poorly educated, a drifter as well as  a (potentially violent) criminal.

Yet Shepherd’s genius lies in showing that between these two siblings, once the trappings of academia are discarded, the smarts are equally shared. As layers are stripped away, so is the menace is calculatingly increased - and yet for all the improbability of Lee’s apparently usurping his brother’s gift for storytelling, Shepherd gives this tale of sibling rivalry a ghastly plausibility.

Perfectly cast, Harington is bookish, bespectacled and moustachioed - a wimp against the ripped six pack of his brother’s (bare chested in the second half) frame. Yet both men immerse themselves in compelling performances, ratcheting up the suspense with perfectly delivered dialogue, and immaculately choreographed movement. (Bravo fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) 

The creative talent behind the production is flawless. Director Matthew Dunster painstakingly eliciting every carefully weighted nuance from Shepherd’s already well-honed script, as Jon Bausor’s ingenious trailer-trash set and Joshua Carr’s lighting, perfectly capture the Mojave desert’s oppression.

Dated perhaps, but the play’s dynamism is timeless. Harington and Flynn define scorching drama in what is unmissable theatre.

Runs until 23rd February 2019
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday, 30 November 2018

Ennio Morricone In Concert At The O2 - Review

The O2, London


Maestro Ennio Morricone
(Last year Turkish TV channel TRT World broadcast this 6 minute tribute to Morricone - At 2:12 into the clip, I am interviewed about the Maestro)

Ennio Morricone played London for the last time this week, his farewell visit to the capital heralding the gifted composer’s imminent retirement.

But what a spectacular farewell. In an evening that largely revisited the programme of his 60 Years in Music concert  from early 2016, (my review to that gig below) and again with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with whom the Maestro recorded his Oscar winning score for The Hateful Eight, for the best part of three hours Morricone conducted a heavenly symphony of instrument and voice. Enchantingly sprinkled with l’italianità, the concert was a unique fusion of cinema, music and passion.

And enchantment is no understatement as to witness this musical genius conducting  the music that he has created is to see a summoning up of spiritual wonder. With more than 200 souls breathing life into his work within the sold-out O2, the Maestro wielded his baton as a sorcerer might wave a wand, delivering an evening of sheer magic and displaying an energy that belied his advanced years.

Hearing Morricone conduct his work live offered a chance, not just to re-enter the ethereal cocoon of his music, but also to observe some of the finer details woven into his compositions: the harp melody incorporated into The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; the fusion of baroque, tribal and sacred that make up On Earth As It Is In Heaven from (what should have been an Oscar winning score) The Mission. The detail that underlies his melodies and orchestrations is breathtaking.

The evening’s programming was inspired too, with the staccato Tarantella seamlessly segueing into Susanna Rigacci’s sublime soprano take on Nostromo. Morricone could almost have written for Rigacci’s voice – her delivery of the the vocal line in The Ecstasy Of Gold proving almost literally, an ecstatic, spine-tingling flourish to what is possibly the Maestro’s signature tune. Dulce Pontes offered a second wave of vocal delight – with no number sung more verve-infused than the lesser known, samba-esque Aboliçao from the 1969 movie Burn!.

The choral background to the evening came from the Crouch End Festival Chorus who, when called upon, were magnificent – with none finer than their own exquisite soprano Rosemary Zolynski who more than deserved her handful of solo moments.

Rigacci and Pontes both returned to the stage for powerful, passionate encores but perhaps the sweetest moment of the encore'd movements came from the delicate beauty of the Cinema Paradiso themes - reducing many in the packed arena to tears.

Now in his tenth decade, while there may have been an aura of mortality to the occasion, there was not a jot of frailty in Morricone’s presence. We may never witness the Maestro perform live in London again - but he has gifted to the world a musical legacy that will live forever.

My review of Ennio Morricone's 2016 Concert  at the O2

Friday, 16 November 2018

Hadestown - Review

National Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell
Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Patrick Page
Running at the National Theatre prior to a Broadway opening, Hadestown offers a uniquely folksy and enchanting take on the tragic tale of Orpheus and his love, Euridice. For a potentially grim narrative, the musical is a joy thanks to the transformation of Anaïs Mitchell’s surprising and layered concept album into one of the most refreshing and riotous shows in London.

Rachel Chavkin directs the fascinating tale of human weakness and hope. The story goes that Persephone, wife of Hades lord of the underworld visits the earth bringing with her the seasons of Spring and Summer (and joy and booze). As Hades' jealousy grows, so Persephone’s visits become less frequent, unleashing hunger upon the world’s population including Euridice. An impoverished Orpheus promises Euridice the world, and it is against this backdrop that the musical plays out.

The range of voices that Chavkin has assembled is phenomenal. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus hits notes that would make Freddie Mercury proud while Patrick Page’s Hades occupies yje lower end of the register, bringing a growling, booming bass resonance to Mitchell’s score, the two men proving a perfect juxtaposition to each other. Eva Noblezada’s Euridice’s sweet and perfect Disney-esque voice almost doesn’t match the show's cool although, and again in contrast, Amber Gray offers a gloriously brassy, sassy Persophene. Winged narrator and journey maker Hermes is played by the inimitable André De Shields adding an easy, laidback “how it is” attitude to this sometimes overly fanciful show.

The production is a 101 lesson in modern musical theatre done well. Rachel Hauck’s glorious set twists, turns and expands, segueing intimate scenes into lavish numbers as Bradley King’s lighting transforms the stage, stunningly transforming a New Orleans jazz bar into an infernal labyrinth. 

Hadestown sees the capital graced with yet another sensational piece of new writing. A big, beautiful show with a soundtrack that you’ll want to listen to all the way home.

Runs until 26th January 2019
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Don Quixote - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Adapted by James Fenton from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes
Directed by Angus Jackson

David Threlfall

In James Fenton’s adaptation of Cervantes’ 17th Century classic, the fabled antics of Knight Errant Don Quixote are given a contemporary understanding that still preserves the original’s richness. 

David Threlfall is the aged Quixote, climbing onto the Garrick stage from the stalls in the first of the show’s many “Fourth Wall” breaches and is, quite simply, magnificent. Robed and biblically bearded, there is something of the Billy Connolly in Threlfall’s appearance which only underlines the tragi-comedy that driving this curious yet also intuitive take on ageing and fantasy. Threlfall captures the essence of Quixote - driven by proud self belief, and yet slowly being deprived of his mental faculties. His is a performance of the utmost sensitivity, perfectly nuanced in both physical presence and emotional magic.

Of course the relationship between Quixote and his manservant Sancho Panza is one of the oldest double-acts in literature, a pairing that might well have inspired the latter day genius of Blackadder and Baldrick.  Rufus Hound plays Panza and his casting is perfect. Amidst scripted and (when the fire alarm sounded on press night following mismanaged onstage pyro effects) ad-libbed audience interactions, Hound provides the perfectly tipped foil to Threlfall’s straight-guy, his common touch bouncing off the elderly would-be patrician. And whilst Panza’s coarseness contrasts with Quixote’s chivalry, Hound skilfully demonstrates that both men share a resolute moral code. Cynical, corpulent and always caring even if often underpaid, Hound’s Panza remains as lovingly loyal, as he is perceptive - with his devotion proving a bittersweet background to the play’s final act.

There is lovely work all round from Jackson’s company. Richard Dempsey’s Duke captures the mildly cruel foppishness of Spain’s aristocracy, while Natasha Magigi as Sancho Panza’s wife Teresa, surrounded by a bevy of wailing (marionette) infants puts in a neatly detailed, even if caricatured, glimpse of the manservant’s background.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ design is unpretentiously clever, with state of the art stagecraft mixed in with deliciously simple, centuries old puppetry. Windmills are cleverly tilted at and sheep are brilliantly battled, and when Quixote finally ascends to the heavens, the charm of his flight lies not in the obviously visible harness - but rather in the simplicity of its gorgeous imagery. The music is delicious too, with Grant Olding’s Latin and flamenco themed compositions (under Tarek Merchant’s baton) only adding to the tapas-like spread of treats that the evening offers.

If the moments of excessive boisterousness make for minor occasional distractions, they are trifling. The RSC’s Don Quixote has well deserved its transfer to the West End - it is poignant, funny, and perfectly played. Brilliant theatre!

Runs until 2nd February 2019
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Romeo and Juliet - Review

Barbican Centre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Erica Whyman

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill

Romeo and Juliet arrives at the Barbican as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London residency. Directed by Erica Whyman, Shakespeare’s classic story of love and rivalry is given a contemporary makeover that results in an energetic and urgent adaptation.

Although written over four centuries ago, this production feels chillingly relevant, with members of rival families brandish knives and fight on the streets, the bloody consequences of gang warfare brutally highlighted. The tale of the warring Montagues and Capulets is set in Verona, but it is easy to translate this culture to Sadiq Khan’s contemporary London. And yet, despite the tragedy, there proves a surprising amount of comedy interwoven within the drama and heartbreak that makes for an engaging evening.  

The production’s highlight is the host of standout performances drawn from a talented and diverse cast. Whyman elects to have the Prince of Verona and Mercutio played by women (Beth Cordingly and Charlotte Josephine respectively) and for the most part this works. Though a little over-exaggerated at times, Josephine puts in a fine performance as the spirited Mercutio, who is just as tough and brash as any of the boys and, tragically isn’t afraid to back down from a challenge. 

Elsewhere Andrew French provides a calming presence as Friar Laurence, keen to help the teenage couple but unwittingly setting in motion a wave of calamitous events. Ishia Bennison threatens to steal each scene she’s in as the cheeky, no-nonsense Nurse, a mother figure for Juliet, and at times it feels as if she wouldn’t be out of place in a Victoria Wood sketch, providing most of the comic relief. 

At the heart of the play of course are the star-crossed lovers, played by Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick, exuding chemistry. Gill shines as the lovesick Romeo, trying to keep the peace with his new wife’s family at first, then quick to turn with a dark, underlying temper. Fishwick’s Juliet is endearing, playful and passionate as the teenager struggles with the conflict of her heart’s desire and parental pressures, and it very much becomes her play. Though she is a joy to watch throughout, it is a particularly unnerving scene between Juliet and her bullying father, played by Michael Hodgson, as both actors thrillingly convince. 

Tom Piper’s minimalist urban design, centred by a rotating cube, takes some getting used to but is surprisingly versatile. There is a poignancy in it providing both the setting for Romeo and Juliet’s marital bed and their final resting place. Sophie Cotton’s music highlights the contemporary feel and boundless energy of the play, notably during the Capulets’ masked ball, now a rave. 

While the play isn’t perfect – the opening scene feels out of place, the production drags at times and purists may wish to look away – it is undoubtably a fresh and accessible take on an age-old tale. And much like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, this inspiring, compelling and youthful adaptation is sure to open Shakespeare’s most famous love story to new audiences.

Runs until 19th January 2019
Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Sholom Aleichem In The Old Country - Review

Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London


Adapted by Saul Reichlin

Saul Reichlin
There’s a lot to be said for one man who can stand on an unadorned stage and with a few well chosen words, a wrinkled brow and a beady eye, transport an audience away to another time and a place; creating an illusion, for over an hour,  of the Pale of Settlement where the Jews of Eastern Europe once lived.

Unquestionably, Sholom Aleichem was the greatest Yiddish storyteller of the 19th century - some say the Jewish equivalent of Dickens - but here the credit goes to Saul Reichlin for his captivating performance, not only as Aleichem, but also as the twenty characters we meet on his journey.

We are first introduced to Sholom Aleichem as he travels by train to the fictional old town of Kasrilevke where he is taking a short holiday.  Instantly comical, the play opens with writer Aleichem trying to explain to his fellow train passengers how one can make a living from writing. Ach! He must own a bookshop they deduce.

Almost like a guidebook, Reichlin vividly describes the hustle and bustle of the town’s train station. A mirage of images becomes spun into a hilarious adventure that only ends with Aleichem in a flea-ridden hotel, having lunch in a restaurant with no food.

Reichlin's portrayal of the townsfolk captures their self-deprecating humanity; people who amidst all of life's pitfalls and petty resentments, hide loving hearts behind their snarky words and wry smiles. We meet the wise Rabbi who strokes his beard and sucks the end of it, the paupers who grab a free ride on the tram (they have nothing else to do). There is Tevye the milkman (yes, that Teyve) all kvetching and complaining.  Religion is everything to the eponymous dairyman; he looks to the heavens, shaking his fist to God; why does he have so much bad luck and stress in his life?  But he respects God above all else, so there’s always a smile and a joke. This character’s life, like nearly all those we meet in Kasrilevke, may well be hard and heart-breaking but it is heart-warming at the same time.

Sholom Aleichem In The Old Country is at once charming, funny, sad and yet it is ultimately tragic. Not because of any serious disaster that befalls the characters, but rather because it offers up a taste of an innocent time, a small window into the soul of the Jewish people of The Pale, who don’t know it, but who are about to lose everything. Reichlin's and Sholom Aleichem’s characters may be ultimately doomed but their humanity and comedy leaves one feeling incredibly uplifted.

Runs until 25th November
Reviewed by Jodie Sinyor

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A Very Very Very Dark Matter - Review

Bridge Theatre, London


Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Phil Daniels and Jim Broadbent

With a running time of just 90 minutes and Tom Waits as The Narrator, what’s not to like about A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the first seasonal show to be offered at London’s newest venue, the Bridge? In an alternative take on the typically seasonal, richly fruited and Victoriana-laced Christmas fairy tales, Martin McDonagh’s new play is set in Copenhagen and London, gorging itself on gothic grand-guignol and arguing a fantastic premise that both Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens enjoyed a morbid fascination with African pygmy women.

McDonagh never misses an opportunity to let his politics get in the way of what might otherwise be a good story and so it is here, his narrative heavily laced with furrowed brow punditry upon the Congo’s complexities and exploitation. But don’t see this slightly troubled drama for its hobbled historical spiel on geo-politics. See it rather for McDonagh’s most fertile, febrile of imaginations putting on a theatrical treat that is played out by a magnificent cast.

Jim Broadbent is Andersen who, aside from a minor wig malfunction, puts in an assured turn portraying the weaver of legendary fairy tales as a racist, doddery misogynist who, in an intriguing conceit, was barely literate and whose stories were actually penned by Marjory, an African pygmy who he kept confined in a wooden box.  Broadbent’s timing and delivery is unsurpassed, but when he’s placed into a dining-table exchange with Phil Daniels’ exasperated Dickens - who has had to endure the unwelcome Dane as a house guest for five weeks - the exchanges are eye-wateringly brilliant. McDonagh captures the essence of The Two Ronnies, crossed with Derek and Clive - and in the hands of these two immaculate actors, there’s no finer double act in town.

The writer and his director Matthew Dunster offer up a sprinkling of nods towards Tarantino’s more wittier moments too, while alongside Broadbent and Daniels who both play scumbags of the highest order, there is standout work from Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles as Marjory and a cleverly comic cameo from Elizabeth Berrington as Dickens’ much put upon wife Catherine. Anna Fleischle’s designs are as lavish as they are creepy, and for those who like their horror served bloody, the play does not disappoint.

Make no mistake, the evening’s imagery and language are the foulest, and whilst there may be a handful of talented kids in the cast, this is far from festive family fayre.

Worth catching though - much of this new writing is stunning.

Runs until 6th January 2019
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Honour - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Paul Robinson

Imogen Stubbs and Henry Goodman

'There’s no fool like an old fool’ an adage that sums up much of Honour now playing at the Park Theatre. The play introduces Henry Goodman and Imogen Stubbs as married couple George and Honour. She is a writer who gave up her career to support their thirty-two year old union, while he is a famed intellectual their lives being such that it is almost as if a slice of Hampstead’s intelligentsia has come rolling down Highgate Hill. When the much younger Claudia, an aspiring author who’s profiling George for a book that she’s writing, breezes into their lives, his middle aged mid-life testosterone kicks in and with barely a second thought he succumbs to her attraction, walking out on his wife. 

If the narrative wasn't so ineffably predictable, this might have made for a far more stimulating evening. As it is, as the drama hops from cliché to cliché with the production’s only redeeming feature being Stubbs’ interpretation of a woman in scorned and scorching agony. Hers is a wronged, devoted, heart that bleeds throughout a stunning performance, leaving the audience moved at her pain and cheering her on as faltering, she starts to find a path out of her misery.

Katie Brayben’s triangle-completing Claudia delivers all that the flawed script asks of her - but her encounters with both Honour and Sophie, the couple’s daughter barely a few years her junior, fail to convince. Likewise with Goodman who is forced to wade through interminable melodrama. There is a glimpse of his genius late in act two, after he has been inevitably spurned and rejected by Claudia for a more exciting lover where, Lear-like, he recognises the folly of his deeds. But by then it is too little, too late to redeem an otherwise disappointing turn.

Runs until 24th November
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Monday, 29 October 2018

Lily Lowe-Myers and Robyn Cooper talk about bringing Welcome...? into the world

As new play Welcome...? runs in the Bridewell Theatre's Lunchbox Theatre season, Kirsty Herrington of caught up with the show's writer/performers Lily Lowe-Myers and Robyn Cooper to learn a little more about the story behind delivering this pregnancy-promoting production into the world.

KH:    I’ve seen the play, but for anyone who hasn’t, can you tell me what it’s about?

LLM:    It explores creation from the point of view both of bringing a life into the world and creating a piece of theatre; and the uncertainty, excitement and fears that come with both of those journeys. 

KH:    Where did the idea come from?

LLM:    I’ve written a show every year for the last six years, so this year when I began thinking what’s the show going to be for this year, it was a very different show. Then I became pregnant and I thought, okay that will influence the show in some way, and then Robyn also became pregnant and it was like, wow okay, this is a very unique time.

I was listening to an audio book and this idea of a scientist who had allegedly asked for women to put themselves forward to be surrogate to a Neanderthal baby, and it really sparked something in my mind about what kind of woman would do that. What would be her reasons having decided to do it, what would be her fears and expectations? The similarity between the pregnancy and the creative journey just became very apparent while I was writing it, because I had three weeks to write it and I became aware that our last show would be three weeks before my due date. Knowing that there’s this impending deadline where whether you’re ready or not life is going to change, and I had this impending deadline of ready or not we would start rehearsals so I had to bring something into the world... 

That creative struggle to birth something and then the fears of how it will be accepted and what it will turn into, has strong parallels to how I feel as a woman being pregnant. 

KH:    How did the two of you meet?

RC:    We met when we were four in a swimming pool. One of our mums liked the other mum’s swimming costume. We were at the same nursery school already in Nottingham and my mum had already seen Lily’s mum leaving a few times and had thought “oh, I’d quite like to be her friend.” So they became friends and then they made us be friends and we stopped going to the same school shortly after but remained friends throughout. So 30 years of friendship this year...

LLM:    Aged five...aged six, we’d be making up our own plays and our first film when we were about eight.

RC:    We made a very good film that Lily wrote and directed when were like ten, but before that we made some bad films! 

LLM:    Including one film where Robyn plays a kung fu baby! And then I moved down to London after studying Drama with English Literature in Manchester and we moved in together ten –

RC:    Twelve years.

LLM:    Twelve years, oh god. And then we started doing plays together, we set up our company together, Hatstand Productions. Robyn writes the films for Hatstand Productions and I write the plays and then we both star in both. Being able to work with somebody that you’ve got that history with...there’s a lot that we take for granted that you wouldn’t usually get in the normal few weeks’ rehearsal period.

KH:    How easy is it to work together, with the two of you being such close friends? 

RC:    Well it helps to have a very diplomatic director for those rare moments when we both have very different strong views! We just hand them over to Matt, our director, who comes up with a third option that is better and incorporates both. 

KH:    So there aren’t any kung fu babies in your shows?!

LLM:    Next year’s show probably will have babies on stage because I’d love to explore what that means and how that works and how exciting that is for an audience, and as performers on stage how do you respond to this other being and still have a play. 

KH:    How do you find Lunchbox Theatre?

RC:     I love the idea. I feel like we’re all very, very busy, almost too busy perhaps, and.. it makes you take a lunchbreak for the people who work nearby, hopefully gives them a real reboot to go back to work but also doesn’t cut into family time, evening time. I find it very exciting to be able to tell a story in 50 minutes. 

KH:    What’s been the reaction so far to the play?

LLM:    It’s been great. One of the things that struck me on our first performance in London...what I was most shocked by was the difference in reactions. Everybody had really enjoyed the show and were saying very complimentary things, but how they felt and how they interpreted the show was very different. There were some who found it hilarious, others found it disturbing, and others found it really inspiring and it reminded of them when they were pregnant, and somebody found it serious and scientific. There was a real range from the personal to the scientific to the empowering. I was just hearing different people’s responses and I thought, wow, I don’t think I’ve ever created a play before that has ever been so open for different people to interpret in their own unique way. 

KH:    What would you like the play to achieve?

RC:    One thing I would love would be for someone else to take it on after us. Wouldn’t it be amazing if when actresses get pregnant, instead of thinking “I’ve basically got about six weeks before I can’t cast anymore,” they thought “I can play that!” There’s something about getting older as an actress that a lot of the brilliant roles disappear but you know you might play Lady Macbeth one day. It’s there, waiting for you, this incredible role. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if there was this piece of work where people could think “we could put this on, I could find another actor and we could explore this.” I think it would be a wonderful experience. Instead of being a play where it’s “we can get away with you being pregnant,” it could be “the fact that you’re pregnant is what means you can tell this story really well,” and each person would bring something different to it because their experiences are different. 

KH:    From your own experience and that of your friends, how far into pregnancy can women work in theatre?

RC:    It’s different if you’re already in a show and you get pregnant, it’s something you can negotiate with the producers, and then it depends on how much you’re showing. I went for a casting when I was eight or nine weeks pregnant and I asked the casting director’s assistant when they wanted to know, and they said when you’re starting to show. Everyone is very careful to be sensitive about it which is wonderful, but no one knows. It’s different for everyone.

LLM:    Realistically there is a lot less work if you’re pregnant. From speaking to my friends who are also actors, if they’ve worked when they’ve been pregnant it’s because they didn’t say before they got the job and then the job has worked around it, but I don’t know any who got a job because they were pregnant. I was trying to understand why, because there are roles where people play someone who’s pregnant. I can see there’s a lot of fear around that, that it’s easier to bring in an actress who isn’t pregnant and just get her to wear a pregnancy suit, and sometimes that’s because in one scene you’re pregnant, in the next you’re not. So that was kind of part of wanting to create something where pretty much whatever stage of pregnancy you were at at could be used in the play, and to also take away the fear and to put together a research document.

We were interviewing other performers who either have worked when pregnant and what their experiences were... the experiences of people who weren’t able to get work when they wanted it, and some people didn’t want to be doing a theatre show... to collect as many voices as we can, because for directors and producers who are putting on a show and maybe considering working with a pregnant actress there’s not very much out there. 

We wanted to brainstorm other ways for smaller theatre companies like us to be able to do it in a way that we never feel pressurised...which is how we came up with the idea to get a collective of actors. We put the advert out for pregnant and non-pregnant understudies and the feedback was so positive. There are all these pregnant performers out there who want work! This idea that maybe they don’t want to be working is definitely challenged in that sense. 

KH:    How are you finding performing while pregnant?

LLM:    So far actually it’s been a lot less restrictive other than having to put on and do up shoes, which is definitely the most challenging part of the show for me. 

RC:    It’s very compassionate that it’s in the middle of the day. It’s fun to play and like Lily’s character says in the play, you could write a play about pregnancy where there’s so much angst around losing the baby, and I think that would feel quite different every day being like “okay how do I get myself ready to go there but protect myself?” It‘s nice to share the joy, to share what an exciting, unknown, random time this is.

Welcome...? runs until 2nd November

Photo credit: Oleg Katchinsky

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Macbeth - Review

Barbican Centre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay

Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston

The ever fabulous Royal Shakespeare Company presents the ever epic Macbeth by William Shakespeare at the gorgeous Barbican Centre until January 2019, with none other than Christopher Eccleston (making his debut with the company) in the titular role. It should be an absolute blinder with such a strong and perfectly brooding lead… but unfortunately, the production falls a little flat in pivotal places.

Polly Findlay’s direction makes much use of Fly Davis’ sparse and contemporary staging (complete with a doomsday clock counting down to Macbeth’s demise) which is easily filled by quirky performances. Eccleston is obviously excellent, conniving and believably nutty, thrown into turmoil by three of the creepiest and cutest witches to ever grace the stage. This ‘The Shining’ inspired turn added a layer of shivers to the darkness with the matching and overtly ominous red dresses hard to miss. Irish actress Niamh Cusack is the overbearing and ambitious Lady Macbeth, encouraging her husband to take what has been foreseen by the witches - a crown - with blood smeared every step of the way. Raphael Sowole brings an earthy and elegant edge to Banquo, the friend turned foe turned ghostly apparition. 

RSC regular Edward Bennett’s Macduff stood out, especially with his painful and stunning moment of silence as his wife and children’s murders are unveiled: a breathtaking moment in a fast-paced performance where there is barely time to take a breath. It’s good to see Bennett playing serious so well after his charming and hilarious turn in 2016’s Christmas double dose of Shakespearean comedy at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. 

This production embraced the menacing malice of Macbeth, with the countdown clock most menacing of all, which was a shame given such a strong cast and creative team. Kate Waters’ fight direction between Macduff and Macbeth was thrilling, as was the awesome illusions by Chris Fisher, with Eccleston disappearing and appearing with ease. These moments, however, felt somewhat few and far between, even with only a two-hour duration. This left it all feeling somewhat lacklustre when compared to some of the absolutely incredible Shakespearean presentations that can grace our London stages. 

Until 18th January 2019
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo by Richard Davenport (c) RSC

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Welcome...? - Review

Bridewell Theatre, London


Written by Lily Lowe-Myers
Directed by Matt Costain

Performed at the Bridewell Theatre in an enticing lunchtime slot, Welcome…? is a ground-breaking play that seeks to challenge the narrative around out-of-work pregnant female actors and is the first theatrical production in the UK to star two pregnant performers. 

Written by Lily Lowe-Myers in just three weeks and staring both Lowe-Myers and Robyn Cooper, who are in their third and second trimesters respectively, the play explores two storylines. One sees Lowe-Myers and Cooper planning the play, with comedic effect, while the other involves Rachel Smith (Cooper), a woman who in her own words is “unnoticeable but ready to be reborn.” She meets Doctor Larissa Parker (Lowe-Myers), and embarks on an experiment which will change her life and the world at large. 

Skilfully directed by Matt Costain, Welcome…? is a sharp, compelling play which explores the parallels of having a baby and creating a new work of art and it is hard to believe it was written in such a short space of time given its quality and the range of emotions encompassed. At times it’s dark and disturbing; at others it’s light and humorous, notably when the pair are bouncing on birthing balls, eating crisps and pondering the play’s direction.

There is comedy here and moments to tug at the heartstrings too and while a few of the scene changes are a little slow and unnecessary, it doesn’t detract from what is essentially a well-written, intriguing and thought-provoking play. 

Both actresses excel in their roles, with Cooper shining as mum-to-be Rachel, who is endearing as she grows attached to her unborn child. Lowe-Myers was particularly brilliant as Rachel’s mum, dry-humoured and frankly scary with a steam iron. Off stage, the pair are life-long friends, have great chemistry and, if the opening scene is anything to go by, a friendly competitive nature. It’s particularly refreshing to see two pregnant actors on stage, with not a fake bump to be seen.

Hatstand Production’s sixth show in as many years, Welcome...? makes for a perfect 50-minute long lunchtime treat. An intelligent, captivating play that will hopefully pave the way for future pregnant actors. In Welcome…? Lowe-Myers says she wants to make a piece of theatre “that pregnant women want to play.” It appears she’s succeeded.

Running until 2nd November, with two baby-friendly performances on 23rd and 30th October.
Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington