Friday 28 April 2023

Unseen Unheard: The untold breast cancer stories of Black women in the UK - Review

Theatre Peckham, London


Written by Naomi Denny
Directed by Simon Frederick & Suzann McLean

Six women attend a support group meeting for black women with breast cancer. It doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a lively play. It could easily have become a static, earnestly worthy documentary. In the accomplished hands of playwright Naomi Denny however, it’s anything but, with Denny delivering a pacey, dynamic, entertaining drama. Yes, of course, there’s anger, sadness and fear but there’s also a lot of wisdom and humour in this warm celebration of female friendship.

Denny has based her play on the testimony of five women, credited and named in the programme. From that she has moulded six characters, all very different but each a meaty role. And casting director Ali Anselmo has assembled an outstanding cast to bring these people convincingly and realistically to life. 

Denise Pitter is very plausible as Pauline who chairs the meeting. She’s empathetic, respectful and carefully inclusive. Laya Lewis plays her passionate and funny friend Ruth. Both women are currently NED (no evidence of disease). Carol Moses’s Dorah, on the other hand, has Stage 4 cancer and is by turns forthright, bitter, outrageous, hilarious, kind and terrified. The nuancing is impressive.

As Sonia, Yvonne Gidden is tense, taciturn and apprehensive but gradually unbends and Genesis Lynea delights as her elegant, articulate doctor daughter although lack of age gap between them doesn’t work. Meanwhile Aliyah (Adaora Anwa) is the youngest attendee. Only 25 and still living at home she is struggling to come to terms with having been assailed by this disease so early in life.

The group dynamics are perceptively observed as they compare notes, concur, infuriate each other, argue, drink tea and share the food they’ve brought. Occasional freeze flashbacks (good lighting by Pablo Fernandez) provide insights into the experience of diagnosis or dealing with the horror of learning you have cancer as a single parent of two children.  It’s cracking drama as well as being informative. How many people know that a black woman with breast cancer is forty per cent more likely to die than a white one? This is a play with a powerful message.

Runs until 4th May
Reviewed by Susan Elkin

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Dancing at Lughnasa - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Josie Rourke

Ardal O'Hanlon

In an exquisite transformation the Olivier stage is transformed to a farmhouse set in the lush County Donegal countryside against which Brian Friel’s meticulously observed take on 1930’s Ireland plays out.

Very much an ensemble piece, Friel’s dramatic landscape takes in the essence of faith, family, tradition, shame, love and industrialisation - telescoping these vast themes into a play of poignant and ingenious intimacy.

Fictional yet drawn from history, the narrative is focussed upon five sisters and the three men who impact upon their family. All eight performances are magnificent and finely nuanced, combining  to offer an evening of bittersweet observations on the frailties of life and family and of a time, barely 90 years ago, that could almost be from a different world.

At not far short of three hours there are times when one's attention flags, but Josie Rourke directs with a sharp perception and played out on Robert Jones’ stunning set, the evening is an occasion of fine theatre.

Runs until 27th May 
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday 21 April 2023

Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of The Temptations - Review

Prince Edward Theatre, London


Music and lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog
Book by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Des McAnuff

The company of Ain't Too Proud

In possibly the finest jukebox musical created, Ain’t Too Proud is a slick take on The Tempations’ rise from the backstreets of Detroit to become the world's most successful R&B group. Transferring to London from Broadway and with Dominique Morisseau's book drawn from Otis Williams’ history of The Temptations, the show picks out the key moments of the group’s arc, liberally interspersing narrative with numbers - and it is a tribute to the cast and crew of this West End iteration that their take on these Motown classics is performed immaculately.

That the first act is perhaps slightly too long and the second, occasionally, too schmaltzy are minor flaws in what is otherwise an evening of perfect musical theatre. Des McAnuff’s direction steers the story from the group’s early years, supporting The Supremes, through the guiding influences of Motown’s Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. With The Temptations' journey going on to skirt the complexities of the Vietnam War and America’s Civil Rights evolution, their songs were never less than on point.

Sifiso Mazibuko leads the cast as Williams, The Temptations’ founder and backbone, with a performance that is energising and compelling. William’s assembly of the five Michigan boys who were to take the group to their first No 1 hit, My Girl is slickly told, with all of the cast proving to be outstanding performers. Close your eyes and it *is* The Temptations on stage, with particular mention to Tosh Wanogho-Maud who gives a frenzied interpretation of David Ruffin, a man whose presence contributed much to The Temptations’ meteoric rise and equally to Cameron Bernard Jones whose bass baritone take on Melvin Franklin seems to reach a booming register that’s lower than the Elizabeth Line, such is his vocal gift.

The evening is more than just a five-star whirl through The Temptations' greatest hits. The show credits the music and lyrics as hailing from ‘The Legendary Motown Catalog’ and it is a mark of both the style and largesse of this production that midway through the first act there is a medley of hits from The Supremes. Credit here to Holly Liburd as Diana Ross and her two female-co performers – the brief glimpse that they offer of the legendary girl-band is another of the show's treats. 

More than just the actors though, Sergio Trujillo's Tony-winning choreography is breathtaking in its poise, pinpoint accuracy and vision that effectively transfers the show’s 1960s ethos into a 21st century auditorium. Back in 2004 Trujillo and McAnuff helmed Jersey Boys to greatness on both sides of the Atlantic. Their jukebox genre genius has only improved over the years.  

Situated upstage, Matt Smith directs his 11 piece band magnificently. Their handling of the  classic melodies is pitch perfect and whether the tunes are backing the cast or are played as standalone motifs that segue the story from chapter to chapter, Smith and his band are flawless.

This is a bold production to take to a major West End stage in the current climate. A large performing company fused with multi-million dollar staging and projections requires investing producers with nerves of steel. But when the show is this good, it is money well spent. 

Ain't Too Proud at the Prince Edward Theatre - the brightest sunshine on a cloudy day.

Booking until 1st October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday 14 April 2023

Vardy v Rooney : The Wagatha Christie Trial - Review

Ambassador Theatre, London


Adapted by Liv Hennessy
Directed by Lisa Spirling 

Lucy May Barker and Laura Dos Santos

Sporting possibly the longest title to be found in London right now, Vardy v Rooney : The Wagatha Christie Trial is playing in the West End's Ambassador Theatre before heading out to a run of away fixtures across the country. 

Based on the court transcript of Rebekah Vardy’s (spoiler alert) failed libel action against Coleen Rooney, and lasting for as long as a typical football match including injury time, Liv Hennessy fillets down the seven days of High Court evidence into a slick one-two of drama that slots home a brilliant explanation of Rooney’s exposé of Vardy’s leaking of her private life to The Sun newspaper. With the beautiful game running through the heart of show, Hennessy’s script offers up the throw-in of a couple of court-side pundits who deftly sidestep the story’s more cumbersome legal details, allowing the cast to take a wicked deflection with the narrative and keep the audience gripped as the play’s end-to-end storytelling unfolds.

The pace is fast, witty and perceptive - and it’s a mark of the show’s role as a record of very modern history, that nearly all of the laughs come from the trial’s verbatim transcripts. What brings the dryness of the English legal system to life however is the outstanding performances from Lucy May Barker and Laura Dos Santos as, respectively, Vardy and Rooney, with equally brilliant turns from Tom Turner as Rooney’s barrister David Sherborne and Jonathan Broadbent as Vardy’s silk Hugh Tomlinson. Under Lisa Spirling’s direction all four leads exquisitely capture the essence of their characters in a crackingly crafted combination of caricature and credibility. Dos Santos goes so far as to elicit a touch of sympathy towards the humiliation that Coleen Rooney has endured, with dignity, for years.

Pitch-side, the show’s creatives have a fine game too. Polly Sullivan’s set and costumes capture both the gravitas of the courtroom alongside the stiletto-spiked accoutrements of WAG-dom. Likewise Johanna Town’s lighting plots keep the tempo slick.

For an evening of informative and often hilarious entertainment, Vardy v Rooney hits the back of the net.

Runs until May 20th, then on tour
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Sunday 2 April 2023

Bloody Yesterday - Review

White Bear Theatre, London


Written by Deirdre Kinahan

Directed by Rex Ryan

Elizabeth Moynihan and Sinead Keegan


Deirdre Kinahan’s new 50 minute two-hander tells the story of Lily (Elizabeth Moynihan) an English art student who married an Irish farmer, hated the set up and finally abandoned him and their small children. This quite simple story is told in a series of interlocking monologues that alternate between the now 40-something Lily and her elder adult daughter, Siofra (Sinead Keegan). Lily feels a certain amount of guilt while Siofra evinces anger that is sometimes sardonic, sometimes bitter. 


Keegan is a strong actor and warms into the part as the play progresses. Her occasional pretend comments to the audience are effective and very natural. Moynihan gives us a much colder character who has never come to terms with her failures. They occupy different halves of the playing area because, of course, they are in different places without contact, until eventually they speak on the phone when Siofra realises she needs to tell this person -  she repeatedly says, puzzled, to herself “Mum, mummy, mama … Lily?” -  about recent developments in the family.


The story telling is convoluted and the show is almost over before the details of what happened are clear. The writing carries careless inconsistencies too with at one point Siofra saying that her mother left before she was four and yet later she remembers sitting at a table with her, aged six. It is, however, occasionally interesting to hear something from two points of view. Siofra has always loved her Granny, for example, and is rueful about her eventual dementia. Lily on the other hand loathed her mother-in-law.


This play might possibly work better as part of a double bill. As it is it feels slight as a standalone piece. Moreover, one has to wonder why the dance interludes were included, unless it was to bulk out the length.


The ending proves to be a damp squib. The main narrative interest is anticipation of what will occur when the two women finally meet. In the event nothing happens – it is as if the playwright has run out of ideas.

Runs until 2nd April

Reviewed by Susan Elkin