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

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Little Women - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Jason Howland
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Book by Allan Knee
Based on the book by Louisa May Alcott
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Lydia White

In its UK premiere, Bronagh Lagan’s take on this 2005 Broadway musical makes for a charming night that defines much of what is excellent about London’s fringe theatre. Amidst a show of deliciously high production values (take a bow producer Katy Lipson) Lydia White as Jo leads a company of 11 in bringing Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale to life.

Playing out in the northern USA against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Alcott’s much loved fable speaks of love, dreams, ambition and tragedy mixed in with tenderly observed sibling rivalries and affection.

White has the lion’s share of the numbers and she gives life to storyteller Jo’s fiery arc of independence. Alongside her literary talents are her sister Beth’s musical flair and Amy’s talent for painting, as Meg makes up the quartet of the March sisters. All four young women are perceptively and very well performed, but in a stand out turn for sensitively delivered poignancy laden with highly charged understatement, Anastasia Martin’s Beth is sensational.

Jason Howland’s score may not be the most memorable but Leo Munby (MD and keyboards) together with his four string players perched high aloft the stage produce an exquisite and immaculately rehearsed sound. Credit too to Nik Corrall’s outstanding design and projections, and  Sarah Golding’s choreography, all of which make fine and imaginative work of the Park’s intimate space.

The first act drags a little but in this co-production with Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre the show will hopefully go on to enjoy a longer life on these shores. Fans of both the novel or the musical theatre genre will not be disappointed.

Runs until 19th December
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday 11 November 2021

Abigail's Party - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Mike Leigh
Directed by Vivienne Garnett

Kellie Shirley

It is 44 years since Mike Leigh's Abigail’s Party premiered and what was then a cruelly incisive glimpse of England’s suburbia is now very much a period piece. Leigh’s creative scalpel was merciless in his exposition of social ambition, sexual inadequacies, and rat-race frustrations. Viewed through the prism of 2021, the play’s observations of domestic abuse and in particular Tony’s treatment of Angela his wife, are chilling. That the Park’s modern-day audience can laugh at some of Angela’s distress is even more worrying and offers an uncomfortable perspective on a part of today’s theatre-going audience as much as it does a comment on life in 1977.

Vivienne Garnett’s production is a carefully crafted drama and her company are an ensemble of perfectly weighted performances. Driving the piece is Kellie Shirley’s Beverley, perpetually disappointed by estate-agent husband Laurence (Ryan Early) and keen to impress her neighbours with her awkward and misplaced ostentatiousness. Shirley’s performance is a masterpiece of both under and overstatement, garishly dispensing gin and tonics yet smouldering with pent-up unsatisfied desire in the arms of a slow dance with Tony (Matt Di Angelo).

Emma Noakes’ Angela, albeit for differing reasons, is a performance as finely delivered as Shirley’s. A nurse by profession, Angela is a much belittled, humbled and humiliated woman. Not an easy part to portray but Noakes smashes it out of the park!

Early’s Laurence is a two-dimensional blustering popinjay but again, masterfully captured. Di Angelo’s ex-footballer Tony however is the menacing character whose underlying ugliness (hidden beneath a physique of muscular physicality) is only hinted at and about whom we want to know more. Completing the quintet is single-mum Susan, well delivered by Barbara D’Alterio, but whose role in the piece is little more than a foil to the complex dynamics that play out between the two married couples.

For those of us who lived the Seventies the cheese and pineapple cocktail sticks and Demis Roussos LPs are a blast from the past. For younger folk, they can gasp at the crap food and socially acceptable cigarettes that really were a sign of the times. Beth Colley’s set design is a garishly wonderful nod to an era that is thankfully many decades behind us.

At times a troubling play to watch and laugh at but above all, brilliantly performed. Another gem from the Park Theatre.

Runs until 4th December
Photo credit: Christian Davies

Monday 8 November 2021

Curated By Carlos - Review

Sadler’s Wells, London


Carlos Acosta

Birmingham Royal Ballet teased the capital with their tantalisingly brief visit to London’s Sadler’s Wells to perform Curated By Carlos, a beautiful three-act show that offered a fascinating and meticulously prepared narrative, immaculately performed and brimming with both emotion and talent.

Opening with a love letter to Birmingham, in City of A Thousand Trades the company delivered a modern abstract ballet inspired by the city's diverse cultural and industrial heritage, including stories of people who have decided to move there. While Birmingham may have been the focus of the piece, its narrative could have applied to any large English city. Places that albeit densely populated, are still lonely and isolating, especially for immigrants who may have left their families to move to this different country. 

City of a Thousand Trades was created by choreographer Miguel Altunaga and co-directed with Madeleine Kludje, with music inspired by its legacy as the birthplace of Heavy Metal, composed by Mathias Coppens.

The second act Imminent invited the audience to recognise that a window of opportunity is now calling upon us and that there is hope. It focussed on the the importance of letting go of the past, to take action and move boldly on.

Completing the triple bill, Goyo Montero’s Chacona featured the world premiere of a new duet created for Carlos Acosta and Alessandra Ferri. Having danced Manon together in Havana many years ago, this duet sees two of the all time greats reunited. Montero’s thrillingly physical work is set to an electrifying Bach score, performed live on stage by violin, guitar and piano

If the stories may have been abstract the dancing was impressive, filled with humanity, passion and sublime physicality. The evening offered a fabulous glimpse of modern ballet and the opportunity to admire what human bodies are capable of.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Indecent Proposal - Review

 Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Dylan Schlosberg
Book & lyrics by Michael Conley
Inspired by the novel by Jack Engelhard
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Norman Bowman and Lizzy Connolly

Drawn from the novel by Jack Engelhard, Adrian Lyne’s movie of Indecent Proposal was a 1993 blockbuster. Fast forward 28 years and in an ambitious roll of the dice, Michael Conley re-works Engelhard’s original, moving the narrative from Las Vegas to the eastern seaboard’s Atlantic City, re-naming all the characters and stamping his own (albeit diminutive) imprimatur on Engelhard’s plot.

Conley’s take on the fable tells of Jonny and Rebecca a young married couple, deeply in love but financially on the rocks until billionaire businessman Larry offers them a million dollars if he can spend one night with Rebecca. Back in its day the movie worked for a multitude of reasons - not least the credibility of its brightly photographed Vegas, full of slot machines and tables and gluttonous greed, an environment where for the mega-rich or the deeply addicted, a million-bucks coin toss or indecent proposal was as believable as it was horrific.

But for a show (or a movie) to tell a million-dollar story, it needs a million-dollar budget and for all the abilities of this show’s talented cast, the audience’s disbelief is never truly suspended. Maybe if tonight’s stage had been the West End’s Palladium, awash with a casino’s twinkling tackiness of noise and sparkling lights, rather than the Southwark Playhouse, the illusion may well have worked. It takes a certain skill to transform south London's Newington Causeway into a sin city and although its been done before, it doesn’t happen here. Likewise if Conley with Dylan Schlosberg had maybe written just one memorable song, that too would have helped.

When the chips are down however, it is down to Charlotte Westenra's cast to turn in platinum-plated performances and they all come up trumps. Norman Bowman’s Jonny is a perceptive take on a man being forced to consider the ultimate in emasculating cuckoldry, while Lizzie Connolly as Rebecca is equally skilled in a role that demands considerable emotional complexity. Opposite them is Ako Mitchell’s Larry, a magnate who believes that everything and everyone has their price. Essentially a two-dimensional villain, Mitchell throws Larry’s amorality into a horribly plausible relief. Alongside this triumvirate is the also excellent Jacqueline Dankworth as Annie, the casino’s world-weary chanteuse who turns out to be quite possibly the most believable character in the piece.

Viewed through the modern prism of a post #MeToo perspective, the film was a period piece that treated a woman's body as a buyable commodity and in the show’s programme notes Conley makes the arrogant confession of never having seen Lyne's movie. If this musical is to go on to any form of future life it needs a major structural overhaul alongside a respectful understanding of quite what made the movie the box-office success that it then was. The show's producers and creatives should also recognise that nearly 30 years on, what makes for entertainment, has changed.

Runs until 27th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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