Sunday 26 December 2021

Welcome To The Woke Trials - Review


Julie Burchill’s Welcome To The Woke Trials is a brave and excoriating critique of today’s Woke-culture that seeks, via political correctness and the power of the social-media massed mob, to upend so many traditionally held conventions. The book’s journey to publication has proved a woke-war in itself, with two publishers in turn choosing to sign contracts with Burchill before cowardly reneging on their commitments, but two years on from its inception all credit to Academica Press for having the commercial cojones to bring Burchill’s work to an audience. Indeed, such is the toxic nature of today’s wokery that even as this review was being initially compiled, so were Facebook suspending their sharing of Quentin Letts’ review of the book that had already been published in The Times. Truly, sadly, deeply, life is imitating art.

Burchill comments in the book that the delay in publication has ultimately proved to her advantage in that she has been able to “end with an up-to-date roll-call  of  the  Woke  lunacy that  has  taken place  between 2019 and the autumn of  2021,  as  I  write  this” and in that respect the book is bang up to date. That being said of course, the Woke Wars are incessant and post the publication of Burchill’s work, Professor Kathleen Stock’s conflict with the University of Sussex and an even more recent free-speech battle between columnist Rod Liddle and the University of Durham, both events that could easily have fueled another of Burchill’s chapters, have grabbed the headlines.

Burchill’s work is thorough throughout, proving to be both entertaining and educational in equal measure. Her research has been meticulous and as she bravely exposes the hypocrisies of the latter-day puritans of Woke, the book becomes a very bloody abattoir of sacred cows. Hollywood and its spawning of the #MeToo movement, that had so complicity turned a blind-eye to Weinstein for decades, is tackled. Likewise does Burchill take to task the assault on the feminist movement from the transsexual lobby.

Antisemitism and its myopic accompanist of islamophilia is scrutinised, while elsewhere in the book some of Burchill’s most blistering critiques are levelled at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their de-camping to California, described intuitively by Burchill as “The Grabdication”. Perhaps her most powerfully painful comments of all are those that focus on the elitist dismissal of the working class in a chapter exquisitely titled The Wrong Kind Of Diversity.

At times hilarious, at other times bleak. Burchill acknowledges her sources and offers us a devastatingly honest portrait of our times. Typos abound - but given the book’s fraught journey to reach the shelves, they can be forgiven.

Rarely is a work of socio-political comment such a damn good read. An essential volume for anyone interested in considering both sides of a debate.

Available from good booksellers and online via Amazon and most usual channels.

The Art Of Banksy - Review

Earlham Street Gallery, London


The Art Of Banksy, an exhibition of the elusive street-artist’s work that true to form is not authorised by the man himself, opened earlier this year at London’s 50 Earlham Street Gallery.

Tracking Banksy’s work from his emergence in the 1990s through to the present day, the exhibition marks a carefully curated collection that, if nothing else, will stimulate your reactions. This website last reviewed Banksy’s work at Dismaland, the bemusement park he mounted in Weston Super Mare’s disused lido in 2015 - so the time is right to catch up with this intriguingly eclectic creative.

Banksy’s work is powerfully political and this Covent Garden event is interspersed with his quotes that often bite (devour?) the very hand that feeds him - a phrase that visitors encounter early on in the exhibition reads “The art world is the biggest joke going. It’s a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” Link those words to his 2005 screen print Morons, depicting an art auction at which millions are being bid for a canvas bearing the words “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” and his message is clear, the laugh is on us.

Banksy’s work is as brutally satirical as the world he depicts. When he turns his attention to Nick Ut’s harrowing and instantly recognisable photograph image of the little girl napalmed during the Vietnam War, Banksy places her between Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, these two icons of Americana holding the girl’s hands up high and waving to the crowds. As a comment on the USA, the artist’s message mercilessly skewers our conscience.

Banksy’s politics however are too often disappointingly correct, lacking a spectrum of balanced perspective. His mockery of our world, albeit necessary, picks on selective targets that focus more on the artist's chosen causes to champion, rather than balanced debate. His Walled-Off Hotel that challenges Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Territories is a powerful graphic that offers up material for a fair debate. But where criticism could be levelled at those same territories, say for their murderous intolerance of the LGBT community, then Banksy’s silence disappointingly deafens.

Much of Banksy’s famed humour and wit has been assembled for the event, but the display is not exhaustive. If one is hoping to catch a glimpse of “Love is in the Bin” the artist’s famously self-shredding take on his “Girl With Balloon” that recently sold at auction for $25 million then steel yourself for disappointment.

Interspersed with video interview clips from Banksy’s printer Ben Eine, The Art Of Banksy is an exhibition of artworks that may well entertain, challenge, inspire or offend. As an excuse to step inside from the capital’s cold winter, the event is a fascinating distraction.

Booking until 22nd May 2022

Sunday 19 December 2021

Circus 1903 - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


The company of Circus 1903

The third European season of Circus 1903 opened its Golden Age of Circus show on London’s South Bank with a spectacular array of acts. Managed throughout by Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) who is also an award-winning magician, the evening wonderfully engages with both kids and adults alike.  

With laughs and cheerfulness, the show depicts an early USA as spectacular high-flying acrobatics from the Daring Desafios represent the gargantuan task of transforming the country from an untamed wilderness to the New World with vast networks of railroads evolving. Cleverly, the act also suggests the wagon shows of the era. 

Excellent aerial work continues with acts from both the Flying Fredonis and Les Incredibles. Amid high-flying somersaults the performers are not just beautiful, but romantic, skilful, and melt hearts as they display eye contact, smiles and gentle gestures that demonstrate an incredible mutual trust alongside their strength and skills. 

The circus’ performing elephants are brought to life via ingenious puppetry that emanates from creative talents learned at the National Theatre’s  War Horse stable. The animals’ detailed designs demonstrate the perfect control and mechanical genius of the skilful puppeteers (three in the larger Queenie and one in the baby Peanut) - somehow even conveying not just movement but emotion, happiness and disappointments as the show goes on.

Circus 1903 isn’t just about the incredible acts, drawn from around the world, it is also inspirational. When Willy asked himself “Why do I love magic?” – he answered touchingly “It is years practice and rehearsing, passed on through generations, hours and hours of time but it will live forever in our memories” – so true. 

The second half of the show involved more interactions with children from the audience, dance, acrobatics, finishing with the terrifying Wheel of Death.

Circus 1903 provides a perfectly enjoyable circus experience with its combination of lights, music, staging, sets and highly skilled performers. This is an amazing production with an intimate atmosphere, relaxed setting and a thoroughly family-friendly ambience.

Runs until 2nd January 2022
Photo credit: Dan Tsantilis
Guest reviewer: Qing Miao

Saturday 18 December 2021

2:22 - A Ghost Story - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Written by Danny Robins
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Giovanna Fletcher and Elliot Cowan

The significance of time in this play is vividly portrayed from the outset as a large digital clock suspended from the ceiling, rapidly ticking up towards the titular time. The audience is painfully greeted with a chilling scream and pitch darkness.. the play finally begins. Such an opening sequence sets the scene for what is a tension-filled, spine-chilling, heart-pumping thrill of a night.

In the latest casting of this supernatural thriller, Giovanna Fletcher is Jenny, an anxious new mother, who only gets more hysterical and desperate as the play progresses, fearing for the safety of her 11 month old baby, Phoebe.

Jenny’s care for her daughter provides a human touch, with the audience following her ever increasing fear as the play evolves. While her performance is slightly marred by scenes filled with her screaming, overall this is a solid performance from Fletcher, her first foray on stage since 2017.

Alongside Fletcher is Elliot Cowan as her husband Sam, a matter of fact, patronising man who does not believe his wife’s concerns that their house is haunted, with not even their Alexa wanting to listen to his egotistical drawl.

Bringing the humour amongst the scares are the hilarious Ben (James Buckley) and Lauren (Stephanie Beatriz). The two get drunk and try to diffuse the awkward arguments between Jenny and Sam at the dinner party. They provide a misleading perception that all is going to be well through their reassurances and relatability, but this only serves to create an even more jittery story.

Throughout the show, there were moments of pure silence from the audience. This is testament to how great both the actors and the set create suspense. Fox screams are heard numerous times, as well as baby Phoebe crying from her room upstairs. We are never shown more than the 4 characters on stage in the kitchen, but the dimly lit stage and the partially open doors creates a ghostly atmosphere where we can never see what is happening upstairs, nor what is happening outside.

An interesting choice of mise-en-scène deploys a baby monitor. Thus the audience can hear baby Phoebe in the interval, but also when the characters go upstairs off stage to console the infant. The lack of visuals of the baby, combined with the straining to hear through a grainy baby monitor only serves to whip imaginations into a frenzy.

There are intervals of loud scream jump-scares that have no significance to the story and signify a small break in the play, these are cheap devices for thrills and not entirely necessary. The play is at its best building tension and unease through the characters.

Overall an enjoyable supernatural thriller with plenty of genuine scares and an ending that will leave you reeling.

Runs until 12th February 2022
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Habeas Corpus - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Patrick Marber

The cast of Habeas Corpus

London has been treated to some top-notch time machine drama recently. Abigail’s Party has not long closed at the Park Theatre and now Alan Bennett’s outrageous 1973 farce Habeas Corpus plays until February at the Menier, delivering a masterclass in cruel comedy theatre.

To summarise the plot of Habeas Corpus in a way that avoids spoilers is nigh on impossible. Suffice to say, Bennett takes the premise of the (very) finite frailty of all human life, and around a bevy of 2-dimensional characters, weaves the fabric of a 3-D narrative that is simply glorious in its detailed relief. This play harks back to an unfettered, saucy seaside-postcard era, free of political correctness, when the human condition could be a source of comedy.

Male inadequacies, middle-aged fantasies, breast-sizes and even mental health are all the targets of Bennett’s incisive pen and in the hands of a lesser cast the evening could so easily have been rendered crass and tawdry. But Patrick Marber moulds his luxuriously cast company into a cohesive thing of beauty, whose acting is beyond flawless and whose timings have clearly been meticulously rehearsed to perfection.

In a medley of smut and trouser-dropping hilarity, Bennett lays bare the hypocrisies of the British class system, the medical profession and the vanities of both the sexes. Marriage, mortality and fidelity are all fair game and in these current times, where shows frequently carry content warnings, it would be as well to caution that this play will melt snowflakes. The evening will only be enjoyed by those who are able to leave their prejudices at the Menier’s door.

The cast of 11 are all magnificent, professionals at the top of their game who like interlinking cogs make the evening run like clockwork. For five-star theatre of pure escapism and which holds up a mirror to us all, this is the perfect adult pantomime. Unmissable entertainment

Runs until 26th February 2022
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday 13 December 2021

Cabaret - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed by Rebecca Frecknall

Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley

In a remarkable transfiguration, London's Playhouse Theatre is ingeniously transformed by designer Tom Scutt to an in-the-round setting which after an equally imaginative pre-show mise en scene, goes a long way to transporting the audience to Berlin’s Kit Kat Club, the home of the show’s eponymous cabaret.

Rebecca Frecknall’s interpretation offers a bold take on the Kander & Ebb classic. The cabaret girls (“each and every one, a virgin”) are a chic metrosexual bunch, cleverly mixing 2021’s androgyny with Berlin’s famed inter-war decadence. The Kit Kat Club of course is a dive and rising from its deepest depths is the exquisitely ghastly Emcee, played in this iteration by Eddie Redmayne.

Cabaret’s Emcee is one of the most ingenious creations of late 20th century musical theatre. Almost like a Greek Chorus, or Lear’s Fool, he holds up a mirror to the Club’s audience (literally, in this staging, the theatre audience), parodying the hopes of the outside world (“Life is disappointing? Forget it”) while equally mocking the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. As Redmayne delivers If You Could See Her, the brutality of his satire chills to the bone. The actor is a tour de force throughout the piece such that when he is at times mute in the Finale, it only adds to the horrors that Germany as a nation will soon descend into.

Opposite the Kit Kat Club’s Emcee is of course the English cabaret artiste Sally Bowles. Jessie Buckley is sensational in her take on Bowles, bringing an understated haunting to the role. In her opening number Don’t Tell Mama, Buckley stuns with a polished insouciance that has the Kit Kat Club cheering for more. By the time the show is done however, and her Sally has both witnessed and experienced tragedy, Buckley’s take on the title number is breathtaking. Not for her the Broadway bravado of the song that one may perhaps associate with Liza Minnelli - rather, a delivery of Kander & Ebb’s signature tune that shows the singer to be broken and vulnerable. It is a stunning realisation of the song that shocks both in its despair and in quite how powerfully Buckley inverts the number’s traditional style into something far more poignant and haunting. I doubt that there will be a stronger performance to be found on London’s musical theatre scene for quite some time.

Redmayne and Buckley are surrounded by talent. Omari Douglas’ Clifford Bradshaw, a naïf to Berlin and the foil to the story’s piercing arc is assured and credible in his role. When late in the second act he is beaten up by Nazi thugs, there is a multi-faceted angle to the hate that he is subject to. Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider, Berlin’s world-weary landlady, is gifted a number of musical opportunities, in which she shines, and her story too offers a sad wry glimpse into the country’s looming thunderstorm of fascism.

Fraulein Schneider’s two other tenants are the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Elliot Levey) and prostitute Fraulein Kost (Anna-Jane Casey).  Kander, Ebb and Joe Masteroff had a challenge in writing Schultz - as they sought to capture his pride in his German citizenship alongside his love for Schneider, while at all times keeping him wilfully blind to how the fate of German Jewry was to play out. It would have been easy to make Schultz a more soft and sentimental sop, but he is written (and here, played) perceptively, such that his future murder, that as a Jew he will likely face, plays out only in our minds, rather than on stage.

Casey is magnificent as Fraulein Kost, a small character who so skilfully depicts both Berlin’s depravity and its desperation. The gusto with which Kost joins in with Tomorrow is one of the most outstandingly simple depictions of the appeal of Hitler’s National Socialism to much of the German population.

Stewart Clarke’s Ernst Ludwig is the musical's face of Nazism, with Clarke cleverly capturing the ugliness of his role, at all times avoiding cliche and melodrama. As he leads the end of the first act with Tomorrow, it is a chastened and shocked audience that head out for their interval beers and ice-creams.

Jennifer Whyte’s musical direction of her 9-piece orchestra that boldly spans the auditorium is adroit, with Kander’s melodies being richly served. All her musicians are magnificent, but the guitar/banjo work from Sarah Freestone together with Matt French’s percussion are particularly distinctive and memorable.

With antisemitism again manifest on the streets of London, Cabaret has never been more relevant.

Booking until 1st October 2022
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Sunday 12 December 2021

Dick Whittington and His Cat - Review

Watford Palace Theatre, Watford


Written by Andrew Pollard
Directed by James Williams

Watford's festive offering is a delight.

Taking the traditional tale of Dick Whittington who overcomes all odds to become Lord Mayor of London, Andrew Pollard's iteration sees Dick and his cat TumTum (Louise Cielecki) journey from poverty to the mayoralty via Alice Fitzwarren's Flan Factory and even Xanadu (yes, me neither..)

Anyway - this is pantomime and no-one cares too deeply about the plot so long as the baddie ultimately gets their come-uppance and Dick and Alice can live happily ever after and at the risk of a spoiler, that's exactly what happens!

Reece Evans plays the title role, with his magnificent Dick ultimately vanquishing the equally magnificent Natasha Lewis as the villainous gangster rat, Verminia Yobb. 

Terence Frisch, Watford's resident Dame is sensational as Sherrie Trifle, with stunning costumes and top-notch banter. Frisch's first-act tongue twister, a masterclass in the alliteration of F words (all clean of course, this is a family show) proves a comedy highlight of the show.

Rhiannon Bacchus as Alice proves feisty and demure in equal measure before falling for Dick's charms, and with a Beatles megamix for the grown-ups and loads of slapstick and "he's behind you!" for the kids, this pantomime has it all.

Cleo Pettit's designs and gorgeous backdrops are a delight, while Ryan MacKenzie's three piece band keeps the musical tempo pulsating.

On until the new year, Dick Whittington and His Cat is quite the perfect Xmas treat.

Runs until 2nd January 2022

Tuesday 7 December 2021

A Chorus Line - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Directed by Nikolai Foster

The cast of A Chorus Line

It’s a bold statement from Leicester’s Curve that sees them stage A Chorus Line as their seasonal musical. Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban’s meta-musical that scrapes away the schmaltz of 42nd Street, exposing the anxieties and aspirations of an auditioning Broadway chorus line is a gritty glimpse of humanity, with Kleban’s lyrics matching Sondheim's perceptive wisdom. This is a tough show with no gimmicks and which demands a strong and talented company. Here, directed by Nikolai Foster, the musical magic is a singular sensation.

While it is invidious to name cast members as the entire ensemble are all magnificent in the different glimpses of humanity they reveal, be it through the spoken word, song or dance, the key drivers of the narrative are outstanding. In a moment of song-free dialogue Ainsley Hall Ricketts as Paul holds our hearts in his hand as he speaks of the challenges of his parents accepting his sexuality. Lizzy Rose Esin-Kelly as Diana captures one of the show’s most tender lyrics in What I Did For Love, taking those carefully held hearts and breaking them with her honesty, while Carly Mercedes Dyer’s Cassie delivers a dance routine to The Music And The Mirror that is breathtaking in its energy and passion. Helming the on-stage company is Adam Cooper as Zach, the Broadway producer. Fierce yet enigmatic, Cooper plays the role with precise aplomb.

Foster’s team of creatives are as stunning as his cast. Ellen Kane’s choreography skilfully picks out the gelling of the company as the plot’s audition process evolves. Grace Smart’s set design is starkly stunning in its use of the Curve’s cavernous space. But take a bow lighting designer Howard Hudson whose rigs of spotlights rise and fall with a power that both enchants and enthralls. Musical director Tamara Saringer is equally magnificent. Hamlisch’s score is tough, but Saringer and her seven-piece band grasp the music’s challenges perfectly.

The people of Leicester have again been blessed with this festive treat – and if you don’t live nearby, then jump in a car or train and go. This may not be the traditional family show – but for Christmas quality, Nikolai Foster’s A Chorus Line is the One!

Runs until 31st December
Photo credit: Marc Brenner