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

Monday 22 October 2018

Guys and Dolls Live in Concert - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed and choreographed by Stephen Mear

Leading cast members|
Gamblers, gangsters and nightclub singers mingle together in 1950s New York in Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ ‘musical fable of Broadway’, which returned to London in concert form for just 3 performances this October. Directed and choreographed by Stephen Mear and featuring a talented cast of star performers accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, this production was filled with moments of sheer musical brilliance and perfectly demonstrated why, almost 70 years after its inception, Guys and Dolls is still one of the most beloved musicals ever written.

Assuming the lead role of big-time gambler Sky Masterson was acclaimed actor Adrian Lester. Lester is a magnetic performer with an easy charm and inexorable presence which dominated the gargantuan stage of the Royal Albert Hall effortlessly. He starred opposite Lara Pulver as Sergeant Sarah Brown, a pious missionary with a starry-eyed streak. The pair’s act one duet I’ll Know was an early indicator of the smartly cast lovers’ compatibility. Unfortunately though, large script edits that were presumably implemented in an effort to increase the show’s given its scaled-down concert form meant that the interactions between Sky and Sarah felt disconnected, resulting in much of their chemistry never being given a chance to fully blossom.

Another drawback of this usually impressive show’s concert staging was that its focus was inevitably pulled away from some of the more intimate numbers, such as Sky and Sarah’s delightful first act closing duet I’ve Never Been In Love Before. The Royal Albert Hall’s vastness left the more intimate scenes seeming a little distant and impassive, even more so when the energetic orchestra, enthusiastically conducted by James McKeon, filled every corner of the venue with rich sound.

The evenings large group numbers however energised the space quite thrillingly. The Crapshooters’ Ballet was a vibrant, frantic sequence masterfully choreographed to both showcase the virtuosity of the ensemble and emphasise the bustling frenzy encapsulated in Loesser’s score and was undoubtedly a concert highlight. The second half’s other invigorating ensemble number, Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat was helmed by Clive Rowe with charisma and dynamism in excess.

Notwithstanding a flush of tremendous performances, the night truly belonged to actress and cabaret artiste Meow Meow, who played a terrifically funny Miss Adelaide, the sniffling fiancée of Jason Manford’s hapless crap game promoter Nathan Detroit. Perfectly balancing bawdy grit with cutesy charm, her larger than life performance commanded the stage at all times. Meow Meow’s rendition of Adelaide’s Lament, a comedic gift of a song in its own right, was an expertly mixed cocktail of neurosis, fury, and flair which encompassed the tone of the entire concert!

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney

Saturday 20 October 2018

The Distance You Have Come - Review

Cockpit Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and directed by Scott Alan

There is a parable of a jeweller who was given a magnificent diamond to work on but which had nonetheless sustained a deep scratch. The craftsman set to work on the gem and atop the blemish he carved a rosebud, using the scratch as the flower’s stem and delivering a diamond of unparalleled beauty.

So it is with Scott Alan’s The Distance You Have Come, a song cycle drawn from Alan’s work to date. The writer has been magnificently brave over the years in speaking openly of his battles with depression and there are songs here that have been written from his darkest depths. And yet, fashioned together in this two hour gig, they meld to create an event of uplifting beauty and hope.

Set in the round the scenery is simple yet stylish. Suspended branches overhang a park bench, a swing and, ingeniously, a pond too. It says much for Alan’s reputation that he has drawn a cast from amongst the finest musical theatre performers who all leave their own distinctive imprimaturs on the writer’s work, both old established numbers as well as his newer compositions. Alexia Khadime offers up a gorgeous re-working of Anything Worth Holding On To, as Emma Hatton takes At All, a song composed by Alan for a leading lady, with Hatton passionately claiming the work in a re-written, re-imagined style. The writer’s devotees will be pleased with inclusion of old favourites such as Kiss The Air, I’m A Star and of course, Never Neverland (Fly Away).

Alan directs with a soft sensitivity and credit to Sarah Evans and Krystal Lee for having the vision to produce the project. The Distance You Have Come makes for a moving and thoughtful evening. 

Runs until October 28th

Thursday 18 October 2018

Company - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Patti Lupone

Written by a New Yorker about fellow New Yorkers, Stephen Sondheim's Company is arguably best played to New Yorkers too. The songs are legendary, but amidst Marianne Elliott’s company’s well-rehearsed accents (Patti Lupone excluded, she oozes Americana) there’s something missing from this slice of Big Apple life. Perfectly polished for sure, but it’s a tough gig to convincingly recreate Manhattan’s milieu on Shaftesbury Avenue.

In a much heralded gender swap this revival sees Rosalie Craig plays the angst-fuelled Bobbie, celebrating her 35th birthday amidst the alarm of her coterie of married buddies that she is still unmarried. Sondheim’s song cycle of a show charts her odyssey through a cityscape of dating and domestic dysfunctionality - and if the writer’s barbed observations on life veer from the cliched to the piercingly perceptive, this production delivers his songs and score magnificently.

Elliott stages the piece well as Bobbie flits from couple to couple through Bunny Christie’s ingenious set tableaux that glide across the stage, capturing the monolithic greyness of the city’s apartment blocks perfectly. Above the stage, Joel Fram's orchestra are sublime.

WIth a cast drawn mostly from the British industry's finest, the show is lavishly staged with high production values. A male trio sings and dances divinely through You Could Drive A Person Crazy, evidencing Liam Steel’s classy choreography that is magnificent again in the second half opener of Side By Side By SIde.

The red-maned Craig is gifted the lion’s share of the songs and as her Bobbie lurches through a nightmare of neuroses, Craig’s take on Sondheim’s classics is flawless. Indeed,  when sung by a woman both Marry Me A Little and Being Alive are gifted an intriguingly fresh nuance.

But for all the re-casted and re-scripted ingenuity on display, it is down to Broadway legend Patti Lupone's Joanne to deliver the evening’s unmissable moment. There’s probably no finer solo to be found in the West End than Lupone drawling and drinking her way through the tour de force that is The Ladies Who Lunch, her devastating delivery making the most caustic of cocktails. Rarely is a role so immaculately tailored to the performer.

An evening at Company is unquestionably fine theatre. Everybody rise.

Booking until 30th March 2019
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Camelot - Review

London Palladium, London


Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe

Freddie Tapner conducting the LMTO

Camelot in Concert, a one night only delight at the London Palladium, celebrated lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s would-be 100th birthday with a musical not seen on the West End for some thirty years but, as noted with the large turn-out and standing ovation, one which has certainly not been forgotten. To be expected for the winner of four Tony Awards!

The simple set up for the wonderful London Musical Theatre Orchestra and podiums for the cast of ten allowed the music, story and classic but often naughty lyrics to really shine in the Palladium. As with Lerner’s classics Brigadoon and Gigi, the script for Camelot paints a picture without the need for elaborate set and costume, a testament to the rarely heard show and making it perfect for a concert arrangement.

Olivier Award winner David Thaxton is brilliant as the unexpected King Arthur, a jack the lad with a heart of gold and wholesome ambition for Camelot thanks to Merlin’s fortune-telling advice and shape-shifting lessons. As Arthur grows into the king who envisions and implements the legendary Knights of the Roundtable, Merlin loses his powers thanks to the spellbinding song and spell ‘Follow Me’ from Nimue, enchantingly sung by Dutch singer Celinde Schoenmaker. This early exit - and vital plot point - seemed to be a waste as Clive Carter’s Merlin certainly brought the humour home (“and Wort… remember to think!”) but thankfully Carter continued to milk the quirks of his characters as King Pellinore, the ever gleeful and unwittingly wise member of the roundtable. Savannah Stevenson brings Arthur’s Queen (Ginny) Guenevere’s naivety, sweetness and sass to life with ‘The Simple Joys of Maidenhood’ and ‘The Lusty Month of May’, driving the drama from hopeful to tragic thanks to her ill-advised affair with Lancelot. The booming Charles Rice is that Sir Lancelot du Lac, who brought laughter with the très cocky ‘C’est Moi’ and, in Act Two, tears with the exquisite ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’. Matthew McKenna (aka Bananaman) is a highlight from the rest of the table as ever so Scottish, kilt-wearing Sir Sagramore and the concert was solidified by the ensemble who appeared downstage for crowd scenes, each offering an enthusiastic and energetic performance.

Bravo to Freddie Tapner and his remarkable LMTO. Events like this one highlight the enduring nature of a stand-out show like Camelot. A rather flat and undefined performance from the antagonist didn’t detract from the joy of the piece and there was very much the hope a full revival is forthcoming.

Reviewed by Heather Deacon

The Inheritance - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Stephen Daldry

The Company

When Mathew Lopez's play The Inheritance opened at the Young Vic earlier this year it immediately caused a stir. This wasn't just another epic piece of theatre, running in two parts over seven hours, it was another epic gay themed play and comparisons to the National's recent production of Tony Kushner's Angels In America were inevitable. In truth, the two plays may have similar themes but otherwise there is little in common save the running time.

Lopez's play reworks the story of E.M.Forster's Howards End, setting the action in New York more than 30 years after the major events of Kushner's groundbreaking opus. In a shrewd theatrical device, Forster appears to a group of aspiring writers to assist them out of their writers' block. In the process, we are introduced to liberal lawyer Eric Glass and his partner of seven years Toby Darling, who has just gained celebrity as an author and is currently bashing out a stage script.

By chance they meet and befriend the bookish Leo, who aspires to an acting career but needs a leg up, which Toby is more than happy to offer as his script is optioned by a producer. In the meantime the self-deprecating Eric entertains the ailing Walter, who has moved in upstairs while his townhouse is being renovated. The pair share common philosophies and Walter enlightens Eric to the realities of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged New York in the Eighties and Nineties.

The joy of this play is found in the rise and fall in the temperature of Lopez's writing. His characters are painstakingly crafted, without appearing heavy handed and they move the story on in sizable but absorbing chunks. There is no slavish attempt to ape Forster's written style, which simply wouldn't work, but he does credit the author with an overwhelming sense of humanity. It's this trait of Forster's writing that Lopez draws on and despite the numerous socio-political themes that ricochet throughout the play, it is this that gives the play its emotional strength.

Despite a quality creative team including Stephen Daldry as director and Bob Crowley as designer, this is very much the author's night. Scenes of great humour and occasionally even eroticism sit easily beside political debate and it's deeply satisfying to note that the author doesn't pander to the vanity of the current POTUS by mentioning his name. There is balance however, as Walter's Republican partner  Henry - a swaggering John Benjamin Hickey - supremely tears a strip off an over-zealous armchair liberal pointedly trying to undermine him. Walter's epic monologue, delivered so earnestly by a sublime Paul Hilton, hammers home the devastating effect of AIDS and more pointedly, the country that deserted its citizens as they suffered and died.

It is the beauty of Lopez's writing that allows him, at least partially, to get away with such a long play. Part One could quite easily pass for a complete full-length piece, albeit one with loose ends to tie up. It is in tying up those strands of the story for Part Two that Lopez begins to repeat himself, drawinging moments out unnecessarily.  The character of Forster long abandoned, reappears to explain why he wrote Maurice and in a nod to the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howards End, Vanessa Redgrave steals focus as a mother who stayed on at Walter's home, long after her son had died. In fact, Redgrave never made the second press night and the role was admirably undertaken by Amanda Reed.

The Inheritance has been rightly lauded as a major piece of 21st century theatre and Lopez has a gift for crafting argument and dialogue with sensitivity and innate understanding. Does it need to be seven hours long? Hell no, but it's a gripping story, eloquently reminding us that unless we have a conversation with our past, we will never be able to understand the future.

Runs until 19th January 2019
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday 5 October 2018

People Like Us - Review

Union Theatre, London


Written by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins
Directed by Ben De Wynter

Sarah Toogood and Gemma-Germaine

Like a long overdue gust of fresh air blown into the stale politicised bubble that has become London’s arts scene, People Like Us, a debut play from the writing partnership of Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, upends the politically correct canards that have stifled decent debate in the capital for years.

Set around an Islington book group of five friends, most of whose relationships date back to their Oxford years, the fault lines are very quickly exposed between the trio who with varying degrees of passion support Remain and their two Leave believing buddies.

Ralph, with a house in Provence and a younger (second) French wife Clemence are, unsurprisingly, Remainers and upping the ante even further, Clemence is employed by an EU agency. And then there’s Will, a nice enough novelist who, while he canvases for Remain, espousing the intellectual virtues of a London liberal, is still socially, if not politically, impaled on his very personal fence post. 

Leading the charge of democracy are Stacey and Frances whose belief in the Brexit cause appalls Clemence and Ralph. Where Robins has constructed the play’s skeleton, it is Burchill who has fleshed out most of the dialogue and lashing out at London's litterati and chatterati, she takes no prisoners. Ralph’s liberal tolerance is mocked by Frances, while Clemence argues tellingly and, on reflection chillingly, that it is “morally better to silence dissent”. There’s an interesting nod from Frances to Islamic complexities too, an angle that may have the more sensitive critics throwing their hands up in horror, but her sentiments, when viewed through the prism of Rochdale and Rotherham carry more of a resonance than many would be comfortable admitting.

Kamaal Hussain captures Ralph’s privileged entitlement as Marine Andre makes her impassioned UK debut as Clemence. The intensity behind Andre’s performance is sincere and credible - but there are moments when her strong and natural accent renders some of the text inaudible. Gemma-Germaine and Sarah Toogood capture the indignity of their position, ostracised by Ralph and Clemence - and while, for the sake of artistic licence all the character’s arguments are slightly lampooned and exaggerated by the writers, the two Leavers make a powerfully cogent case. Paul Giddings’ Will is a cracking turn that could easily have been inspired by Chicago’s Mr Cellophane.

The silencing and politically dehumanising of Leavers in London has been a recognisable trait of the last three years - and whilst the play is unquestionably a rough diamond that still needs work on both script and aspects of the staging too - for the most part the writers and producers are to be commended for taking their argument to the capital, the ideological heartland of the nation’s Remain constituency.

This is unquestionably a courageous, partisan show for the Union to stage - and there is as much thought put into the production as there is heart, with the programme alone containing more than six pages of essay and comment on Brexit. And if ever there was an example of fortune favouring the brave then this is it: the show has sold out for its entire run and deservedly so.

While People Like Us may be unusual fodder for a West End transfer, there is already talk of a run being staged in the nation’s North East. It would sit well in a TV treatment too.

Runs until 20th October - SOLD OUT
Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke