Saturday 23 October 2021

The Body Remembers - Review

Battersea Arts Centre, London


Created and performed by Heather Agyepong
Dramaturg and Co-Creator Gail Babb 
Movement Director and Co-Creator Imogen Knight

Heather Agyepong

Heather Agyepong's one-woman show The Body Remembers takes the audience on a visceral journey that witnesses the expression of internalised trauma and healing through the improvised movements of Agyepong's body. Set to a soundscape of personal testimony from black British women, the play is an exploration of their experience of trauma and how this is manifest and held in their body.

Agyepong encourages the audience to engage with their own bodily experience. To to their breathing, to begin to notice and be aware of the impact of her performance on their body and the meaning that this might have for us individually.

The personal testimonies are given without naming the context of their trauma, lending a powerful edge to the listeners' experience. The narratives of these women tells of their experience of carrying trauma in their bodies and how they wear it in their worlds. Often misunderstood, misdiagnosed or not believed by the medical profession or the people they turned to for help, Agyepong hears, sees and tells.

In her concluding scene Agyepong departs the stage leaving a carefully constructed array of objects including soft toys, therapeutic texts, a yoga mat and homeopathic medications to calm the body and the mind.

Lasting for 45 minutes, this is a thought provoking and evocative piece of theatre.

Runs until 4th November
Photo credit: Myer Jeffers
Reviewed by Lucy Bex

Friday 22 October 2021

The Shark Is Broken - Review

Ambassadors Theatre, London


Written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
Directed by Guy Masterson

Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritsas
I declare an interest. I saw Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws (for what was to be the first of countless times) in December 1975 on the day that it opened across the UK. I have read Peter Benchley’s book, devoured The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (the movie’s screenwriter and whose book described the story’s journey from page to screen) and in 2015 I interviewed Gottlieb for this website. I know my Jaws...

The Shark Is Broken is an intriguing conceit. Actors have famously commented that while shooting a movie, most of the time is spent sat around doing nothing, waiting for the shot to be ready with only a fraction of time being spent in front of the camera. So it is that Ian Shaw, a son of Jaws star Robert Shaw (who played shark-hunter and fisherman Quint in the movie) together with Joseph Nixon, has created this one-act play set entirely on board Quint’s fishing boat Orca and featuring the interactions between the three actors who played the movie’s protagonists Roy Scheider (Police Chief Brody), Richard Dreyfuss (Oceanographer Matt Hooper) and Robert Shaw.

The show's dramatic structure works well, as with reference to his father’s diaries and stories, Gottlieb’s book and masses of additional research, Shaw Junior has constructed a very plausible narrative. Add to this the uncanny resemblance that Shaw bears to his illustrious dad and the evening is complete. To be fair Demetri Goritsas (Scheider) and Liam Murray Scott (Dreyfuss) both put in fine turns, Goritsas in particular, but – unlike Spielberg’s original, where the narrative was driven in equal measure by the trio – it is Shaw who delivers the piece's core energy, offering us a glimpse into his father's literary genius as well as a suggested dependance on the bottle. There's humour a'plenty too, with Shaw cleverly capturing his father's maverick brilliance.

Guy Masterson directs with an economic precision, the whole work being elegantly presented on Duncan Henderson’s cutaway Orca and Nina Dunn’s ingenious projections cleverly capturing the roll and sway of the New England seaboard. If there are criticisms, it is that some of Shaw & Nixon’s gags about the future are a tad too blatant, and Scott’s take on Dreyfuss’ anxieties errs too often towards a slapstick Leo Bloom – mental health should be no laughing matter.

But this is fine imaginative writing, and as the evening unwinds we see Shaw progressing through his development of Quint’s speech about the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis, and the ensuing shark attack that befell those sailors who survived the sinking. While Jaws is a work of fiction, the tragedy of the Indianapolis is true – and as Ian Shaw recreates his father’s masterful telling of that terrible tale, he holds the audience spellbound.

Runs until 15th January 2022
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Friday 15 October 2021

The Cherry Orchard - Review

Theatre Royal, Windsor


Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias

Ian McKellen

There is a timeless allegory to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and in Martin Sherman’s adaptation the classic story's essence is maintained even if Sherman translates serfdom into the more recognisable description of slavery. The tragedy of bereavement and the fabric of life and heritage are woven into this tale of one family’s decline from a life of wealth and grandeur, and of another man's conquest over his family's one-time masters. It is a rich narrative and in Sean Mathias’ production much of Chekhov’s literary genius is maintained.

Francesca Annis’ Ranyevskaya is a tormented soul, bankrupted financially and fled to Paris to try and escape the grief of her young son’s tragic death, yet inextricably bound to the heritage of the Russian mansion of her earlier life and its cherry orchard. Annis is compelling, but fails to hit the sweet-spot that would truly bring the audience into sharing her deepening pain and loss.

Opposite Annis is Martin Shaw as Lopakhin, her nouveau-riche compatriot and ultimately her nemesis, in an equally measured performance, but with a shade more credibility to his character’s journey.

The glue that holds the story together is Ian McKellen’s elderly serf Firs. McKellen’s mastery is such that with the slightest word and nuance we empathise with his plight and his frailty, his humanity and above all his history, in a mastery of his craft that the two lead actors fail to match. 

The Cherry Orchard’s strength, particularly when set against our modern era, is that it speaks with such elegance on issues that our contemporary, curriculum-bashing activists tackle so crassly. Similarly, Mathias’ company replete with its gender-fluid diversity, distracts. This is unquestionably a quality night at the theatre – but it could have been so much more.

Runs to 13th November
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Friday 1 October 2021

Witness For The Prosecution - Review

County Hall, London


Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey

Emer McDaid

Director Lucy Bailey writes in the programme for Witness For The Prosecution how when she first visited the “long discussed council chamber at London’s County Hall it was covered in dust”. In today’s  Covid-safe theatres the playing space may well be spotless and the dust is no longer, but County Hall still oozes just as much atmosphere and grandeur and that’s before a cast member has even said a line.

Despite the status of such a grand playing space setting the piece off in many ways from the moment you set foot in the auditorium, the first half is at times a slow burner, but audiences beware... pay attention and listen closely, you don’t want to miss a trick, let alone a line or piece of evidence that may later prove vital in the audience-jury verdict.

Leading the cast is Joe McNamara who plays Leonard Vole and is the accused on trial, a debut West End performance for Vole and yet he nails the character to a tea, flitting from panic to calm, anger to devastation with each development and very much taking the audience with him. Emer McDaid arrives on cue as the elusive and mysterious Romaine Vole and seems to lead the proceedings with her witness for the prosecution. 

Yet the leaders of the court room in this case are Miles Richardson and Jonathan Firth as Mr Myers QC and Sir Wilfrid Robards QC respectively. The court room provides the perfect stage for these two fine actors to lock horns throughout with a particularly assured performance from Robarts whose wit and dexterity is impressive. Teddy Kempner’s Mr Mayhew is equally fine as the pair work together throughout the court case.

A rare observation but indeed one worth noting was such a large company, many with extremely minimal moments of action yet so many on stage throughout the piece all contributing to the atmosphere that times could have been cut with a knife.

While the set design allows some flexibility in location throughout, at times it seems to get in the way with. That said Bailey’s direction allows for scenes to be played with a natural focus despite the in the round seating and truly leaves the audience not knowing what will happen next.

Off the West End geographically but not by much Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness For the Prosecution’ really is a fine treat, and very much an established one. Amongst the comings and goings of shorter runs for many plays in and around town, this production now in its 5th year truly is a thrilling night of whodunnit, classic drama.

Booking to 20th March 2022
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz
Reviewed by: Matt Hooper

Back To The Future The Musical - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard
Book by Bob Gale
Directed by John Rando

Olly Dobson

In a dramatic gesture matched only in magnitude by the invention of the flux capacitor itself, so have the cast and creative team behind Back To The Future The Musical delivered one of the best new musicals to hit the West End in recent years.

Bravely opening as the pandemic (hopefully) fades, the Adelphi was packed to a cheering audience savouring a show that wasn’t just based upon a classic 1985 movie but which takes that film’s narrative to a fourth dimension amidst a veritable nuclear-powered fusion of effects wizardry, video projection, and good old-fashioned human talent.

It’s not just a tough gig to set a science-fiction yarn to music, Back To The Future also demands of its leads that they can inhabit characters including the leads that were so memorably brought to life on screen by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox . This show however pulls it off with an inspired casting that sees accomplished Broadway actor Roger Bart create the stage version of Doc Brown. Opposite Bart, Olly Dobson is equally convincing as teenage time-traveller Marty McFly.

Nearly 40 years old, the story is a classic. Marty gets sent back in time 30 years by the madcap inventor Brown, where he stumbles across his pre-marital parents. And as his youthfully gorgeous mother Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland) falls for the new kid in town, unaware of course that he is her son, it is down to Marty and the (younger, naturally) Doc to engineer the plot that sees Lorraine fall for her unlikely suitor George McFly, so that in time the pair can marry and beget Marty… 

Roger Bart

Throughout, the acting is flawless, not least with Hugh Coles’ George McFly, a veritable masterpiece of physical comedy. Coles’ perfect interpretation of the hapless George delivers not only perfectly timed hilarity but also immaculately pitched nuance that must surely stand him in good stead when the Olivier for Best Supporting Actor is being considered. There is pathos too in the bond between Marty and the Doc - again, never milked, just perfectly pitched.

And, for the most part, the show’s new songs are also rather clever. In a time when new musical theatre writing can often disappoint, the numbers created here combine humour and passion together with perfectly pitched insight into the human condition. Hello - Is Anybody Home? as Marty gazes despairingly at his (1985) family, is matched in wit by his (youthful) dad’s My Myopia. Whichever of Silvestri or Ballard thought to rhyme myopia with utopia is another deeply talented soul.

Actors and lyrics aside, Back To The Future has always been about the car! So much more than just a ripping yarn, what is needed here has been the translation of a 20th century blockbuster movie crammed full of (non-CGI) special effects and squeezing it into the confines of a proscenium arch, beyond which is a theatre brimming with the expectations of a tech-savvy 21st century audience.

Director John Rando pulls off this task magnificently – aided by Tim Hatley’s design work, Chris Fisher’s illusions, Finn Ross outstanding video projections (Doc Brown’s climbing of the clock tower towards the show’s finale is a hilarious coup-de-theatre in itself!), Gareth Owen’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting. The staging is imaginative, stunning and clearly expensive – everything that a big West End show should be – and, above all, imaginative. There will be no spoilers in this review – just go and savour what these guys manage to do with a classy company of actors and a DeLorean. (And if this 2021 iteration of the story sees those pesky Libyan terrorists from 1985 get canned in the name of politically correct progress, well hey that's showbiz!)

Jim Henson’s 14 piece band make fine work of the newly scored stuff – theres a great leitmotif running through the show that is a nod to the movie – with the more recent songs standing up well to the timeless gems of Johnny B. Goode and Huey Lewis’ The Power Of Love. The dancework is wonderfully tight too, with choreographer Chris Bailey lobbing in some wonderful moments of pastiche that only add to the evening's splendour.  

It says much for London as a global centre of theatre that the producers have chosen to workshop and launch this All-American show over here and with a predominantly British company of cast and creatives. As soon as circumstances make it possible and profitable, the show deserves a swift transfer across the Atlantic. 

Throughout, Back To The Future The Musical exceeds expectations, consistently delivering excellence in acting, song, dance, and oh, those effects.  Family entertainment in musical theatre does not get better than this. Just go!

Booking until 1st July 2022
Photo credit: Sean Ebsworth Barnes