Saturday 27 May 2023

Rose - Review

Ambassadors Theatre, London


Written by Martin Sherman
Directed by Scott Le Crass

Maureen Lipman

Maureen Lipman delivers a flawless performance in Martin Sherman’s fictional Rose, a play drawn from the experiences of his grandparents. Over two acts and two and a half hours, Lipman performs a monologue that charts the path of diaspora Jewry through the 20th century.

Set in 2000, the narrative sees Rose looking back upon her life. Born in a shtetl in the Ukraine in 1920, she was to experience Cossack pogroms and then the inhuman horror of the Holocaust that was to see her witness the shooting of her nine-year-old daughter by the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto. Escaping Europe and making her way on to the Exodus, bound for Palestine, Sherman is rightly unforgiving in his description of the harshness of the British rule over mandated Palestine and the accompanying hostilities shown by UK forces towards Jewish refugees.

The second act sees Rose build a life with the second of her three husbands, with Sherman offering up a description of the post-war American Jewish experience that will likely resonate with much of the play’s transatlantic audience. So far, so good, with the playwright having crafted a magnum opus in addressing the history that his writing has encompassed.

The wheels fall off in the monologue’s closing phase, as Rose equates Israel’s modern day actions in the West Bank with the Nazis' extermination of the Jews. This is a poorly argued conflation that offers a shallow and dangerous interpretation of a complex situation. It no doubt suits Sherman’s political agenda to promote this analysis, but as a historical comment his conclusion debases the preceding 90 minutes of brilliance.

Maureen Lipman’s performance of Rose is magnificent. Sherman’s writing however is ultimately found to fail to match her excellence.

Runs until 18th June

Thursday 25 May 2023

Aspects of Love - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black & Charles Hart
Based on the novel by David Garnett
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Michael Ball and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Returning to the London stage and complete with re-vamped orchestrations, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black / Charles Hart’s Aspects of Love takes up a modest residency at the Lyric Theatre .

Michael Ball who starred in the original production as the young Alex, here tops the bill as the avuncular George, in this curious tale of love that according to Messrs. Black and Hart, changes everything.

Ball is magnificent and so too are his company of Laura Pitt-Pulford as Rose, Jamie Bogyo (Alex), soprano Danielle De Niese as Giuletta and Anna Unwin as Jenny (with on press night Millie Gubby as her character's pre-teen iteration). It all makes for a fabulously performed ménage à cinq that on closer inspection turns out to be a most unappetising minestrone of morals.

Technically, the show is a marvel. Not just in the actors’ glorious work, but in Lloyd Webber’s melodies married with John Macfarlane’s ingenious designs and projections, that make for an evening of exquisite stagecraft.

Ultimately though, the musical is little more than a sung-through panoply of privileged, priapic, polyamory. Go see it for the gorgeous songs.

Runs until 19th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Awful People - Review

Latest Music Bar, Brighton


Written by Julie Burchill and Daniel Raven
Directed by Carole Todd

Joseph White, Temisis Conway, Seth Morgan and Deborah Kearne in rehearsal

Awful People is the latest play from Julie Burchill - this time co-authored with husband Daniel Raven - that proves to be a morality tale for our time.

India (Deborah Kearne) and Aonghas, pronounced Seamus, (Seth Morgan) are a bitterly estranged couple in early middle age who are nonetheless still pooling their creative talents together in the vain hope of penning a rap version of The Wind in the Willows. Their infertility, recently addressed by IVF, has seen them become late-onset parents to offstage toddler twins. 

While Aonghas lives in a nearby flat, India shares her comfortably appointed home with Galyna (Temisis Conway) a Ukrainian refugee who she has billeted in the room next door to the kitchen and tasked not just with the household’s domestic chores, but also with providing care to the toddlers.

Both Aonghas and Guardian reading India are fleshed out as grotesques and while their callous Class A drug-addled existence may at times verge on the caricature, there are piercing moments of clarity that define Burchill’s ability to skewer these chattering (il)liberal metropolitans with their own hypocrisies. When late in the play Galyna reveals that she is a qualified doctor and India exclaims “You never told us”, the Ukrainian’s reply is brilliantly devastating: “You never asked”.

Completing the quartet of players is Joseph White as Gideon, a Deliveroo motorcyclist. Born in Britain but of Nigerian descent, Gideon has been brought up with a strong Christian ethic and an equally firm moral code. From a poor background, and having lost a brother to drug-running violence, (possibly having delivered drugs to Aonghas in the past), Gideon’s take on the world is wise and measured and his scorn for Aonghas, to whom he is delivering a smashed avocado sandwich, is palpable. 

Aonghas and India view immigrant communities as being there to serve them on low wages. Gideon and Galyna however, having experienced the harshness of life’s knocks, bring a more sanguine take on society and view with contempt the virtue signalling of their patrician patrons. Gideon describes divorce as a “disease of the affluent” and comments, with chilling perception, of the likelihood of the twins growing up into arrogant replicants of their parents.

As Aonghas behaves with a casual misogyny, so does India express an Emma Thompson-like contempt for the UK “Another day, another reason to hate this miserable island” with both of them spitting sneerful Remoaning contempt at the ruin and inconvenience brought to them by Brexit. It is the youthful Gideon and Galyna who rise to become the adults of this piece.

At around 75 minutes, the play is short and (bitter) sweet. All 4 performers turn in assured work, deftly directed by Carole Todd and wrapped up at the end with an unexpected but gorgeously sung solo from Conway. 

Only on for a tiny run in Brighton’s Fringe Festival and coming in with visibly low running costs, Awful People deserves a wider audience as there are millions across the country to whom Burchill and Raven’s words will resonate with truth. The work is crying out for a British theatre (either London or regional) to stage this provocative piece.

Runs until 25th May

Wednesday 17 May 2023

The Bodyguard - The Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Based on the Warner Bros film
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Melody Thornton and the company of The Bodyguard

Having conquered London’s West End 10 years ago, Alexander Dinelaris’s production of The Bodyguard returns to the UK with a nationwide tour, arriving at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre and playing to a packed house on this, its fifth location on the road. 

With a wonderfully hokum narrative hung around Whitney Houston’s most famous hits, it follows the story of fictional singer Rachel Marron who has recently hired a bodyguard following threats from a stalker. You can expect drama, romance, emotion and of course, Houston’s 80s and 90s classics we all know and love.

Six years on from playing the lead role on tour in China, Melody Thornton reprises her role as Rachel Marron, alongside Ayden Callaghan as bodyguard Frank Farmer. An incredibly demanding sing, Thornton delivers exceptional vocals throughout, particularly in the climactic One Moment in Time and finale I Will Always Love You, giving Whitney's recordings a run for their money! Callaghan’s performance was stoical, with hints of humour along the way, playing the role of dependable yet emotionless bodyguard very well.

Particular mention must go to Emily-Mae Walker playing the role of Marron’s sister, Nikki. Her vocals were breathtaking and effortless - a pleasure to listen to. Hers and Thornton’s duet of Run To You towards the end of act one captured the audience with its stunning harmonies. Walker and Thornton were joined by Iesa Miller, playing Rachel’s son, Fletcher, in a heart-warming trio rendition of Jesus Loves Me. Miller delivered an impressive performance for such a young age, with believable acting and fantastic vocals and dancing.

The first half's plot is sometimes slow, but act two picks up the pace, full of suspense with a few jump-scares resulting in screams and subsequent laughs from the audience. The whole performance is impressive, with pyrotechnics, brilliant ensemble choreography, a dazzling wardrobe and a couple of stand-out vocal powerhouses - it has something for everyone with the encore of I Wanna Dance With Somebody getting all of the audience on their feet to dance away with the cast.

Playing at the Churchill until Saturday 20th May and then touring until the end of the year, audiences will love this show that will certainly leave them wanting to dance with somebody!

Runs until 20th May and then tours
Reviewed by Sophie Kale

Wednesday 10 May 2023

4000 Miles - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Richard Eyre

Eileen Atkins

Eileen Atkins’ take on her character, the 95 year old New Yorker Vera Joseph, is the standout feature of what makes, for the most part, a clumsy pot-pourri of themes and issues.

Visited by her grandson Leo (Sebastian Croft), a twenty-something who has seen his coast to coast cycling adventure with a friend end in the friend's tragic death in a road accident, the play explores the relationship between Vera and Leo, with fleeting references to the young man's love (and potential love) interests along the way.

Atkins is a consummately skilled performer, but Richard Eyre fails to extract a convincing New York tone from her words. Her accent is generic American where a harsh Manhattan dialect would have given her more acid observations greater heft. Joseph is a champagne communist like many of her generation, however Amy Herzog rarely journeys beyond cliché in her play’s crass political representations.

Where the script comes alive is in Atkins’ take on her character’s advanced years. Her memory lapses, erratic irascibility and, at times, profound melancholy at the loneliness of her widowhood are poignant and well observed. Sadly, not much else is, and yet again a Chichester audience is found to be laughing insensitively at moments that are far from funny.

It’s not often that a 90 minute play feels like a tedious three hours.

Runs until 10th June
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Motive and the Cue - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Jack Thorne
Directed by Sam Mendes

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn

Jack Thorne’s new play is one of those rare events, fusing the strongest of stories with an exquisite script, delivered by a riveting troupe of actors. The Motive and the Cue takes an ingenious delve into the rehearsals that underscored Richard Burton’s 1964 Hamlet on Broadway, a production that was directed by Sir John Gielgud.

Burton was at the peak of his hell-raising career, while Sir John, arguably the finest Shakespearean performer of his generation was already past his zenith. Johnny Flynn and Mark Gatiss play Burton and Gielgud respectively and their take on both of these giants is nothing short of remarkable. Vocally and physically the actors capture the instantly recognisable characteristics of both men: Gatiss bringing a balding mellifluous wisdom to the theatrical knight, while Flynn wields a louche, perfectly pitched swagger that, with just a hint of Welsh tonality, nails Burton’s distinctive presence.

Johnny Flynn

Thorne’s genius is in crafting the theatrical history of what was to become Broadway’s longest-running Hamlet ever, into a standalone dramatic gem. Tuppence Middleton plays Elizabeth Taylor - 1964 saw the Burton / Taylor marriage at its most passionate, remember that their legendary Cleopatra movie had only opened the year before  - and her take on the actress, describing Burton as “the finest actor she ever went to bed with”, is inspired. Middleton's Taylor understands the Welshman’s complex roots, his impoverished childhood, nurturing and nourishing his talent. In her final scene, clad literally in fur coat and no knickers, Middleton defines the smouldering, beautiful complexity of one of the twentieth century’s most compelling actresses.

With an acute perception Thorne brings to the fore both Burton's and Gielgud's troubled pasts. Gielgud contemplating the waning of his career at the end of act one, in which having coaxed the recalcitrant Burton in Hamlet’s “Speak the speech I pray you” speech to the Players, then, solo, and as a monologue, recites the speech himself, creating a moment that evolves into one of the most heart-rending and tender scenes penned in recent years. Gatiss defines Gielgud’s melancholy with a profound and measured depth, his gauche second-act encounter with a rent boy proving equally tender.

Mark Gatiss

Flynn too offers a glimpse into the alcohol-fuelled complexities that contributed to Burton’s gargantuan stage presence. Thorne’s script and Sam Mendes’ assured direction offer up a fascinating glimpse of both men’s vulnerabilities.

There’s excellence throughout the cast, with Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie (the production’s Gertrude) and Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius) both in sparkling form. Rarely has Hamlet’s closet scene been played with such credible hilarity. Es Devlin works her usual magic in the play’s scenic design, with scenes ingeniously changing behind the opening and closing aperture of the Lyttleton’s curtain. Credit too to Charmian Hoare, the production's dialect coach, for capturing such aural perfection from the leading performers.

The Motive and the Cue is new writing at its finest, built upon the most fascinating of stories. It is an unmissable night of theatre.

Runs until 15th July
Photo credit: Mark Douet