Welcome to loureviews.blog!

About this blog

I started this blog in 2011 to report back on shows I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.

It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.

About me

On a professional level I worked for twenty-five years as a librarian, and also am a published writer – academic articles, poetry, popular culture – and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.

As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.

Social media channels

Please feel free to browse through my work on here or via my Twitter feed (@loureviewsblog). I am also developing my YouTube channel | Pinterest | Instagram | Facebook and will be launching a sibling blog to this one to concentrate on DVD releases during 2019.

Contact me

If you feel you have some news or events which would be a good fit for loureviews.blog, or would like me to review your show or product, please let me know.

You can contact me at louise@loureviews.blog and I will respond to you as soon as I can.


Preview: Theatrical Niche’s Uncle Vanya

Theatrical Niche bring their version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya into London (at the New Wimbledon Studio 19 – 23 November, and the Old Red Lion in Islington 2 – 7 December).

I asked company director Venetia Twigg to tell me a bit more about the production and future plans for the Kent-based company.

Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright
Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright

Uncle Vanya is one of the best known of Chekhov’s works, and one of the most staged. What does your production bring to it that is new?

VT: Our production focuses tightly in on the five central characters and their spiralling relationships over the course of the play – so there are just five actors involved. It is therefore much faster than usual, and is laced with a metaphor of care (of both our world and each other).

We use physical theatre to explore the bee-like worker roles Vanya and Sonia take on, and a contagion of dissatisfaction & despair; mirroring the conservational element of bee decline. There are hints of these themes across the sound, set and lighting design as well. 

We have a very strong, mainly female creative team, and at the head of this is director Nadia Papachronopoulou, so we have definitely approached it from a more female perspective whilst keeping it timeless … which has led to some interesting thoughts about Sonia and Yelena in their roles within the household & society, both at the time of writing and now.

It’s also been intriguing to discover how much male mental health is talked about in the show, and how deeply & darkly both Vanya and Astroff really do plunge into this during our production.

Your company has toured a wide range of material since 2012, with Ibsen, Wilde, Berkoff, and of course Blood Wedding in the repertoire. Do you see yourselves as new interpreters of the classics more than engagers with more modern works?

VT: Yes, we seem to have ended up that way! We started with a modern American play by David Auburn (Proof), which we dearly loved, and also staged a fab Neil Simon but in between we were more experimental with Sebastian Rex’s adaptations of Woyzeck & Macbeth, and the company began to take on a more dynamic identity, until Alice Sillett came in to direct Blood Wedding.

We then took advantage of Lorca’s love of the poetic (and his interest in puppetry actually) and got into our stride with using what are seen as modern techniques (but often aren’t) that are either based on the playwright’s original intentions, or serve the themes of the story most effectively.

We had “death”, “the moon” and “the woodsmen” as puppets in blood wedding for example, and then Commedia masks and movement for the Moliere we did, and even the Wilde (the characters sat perfectly with Commedia archetypes because Wilde was following well-observed comedy traditions, and Moliere directly took from Commedia).

So yes, in a nutshell – we adapt classics using a variety of techniques, and that’s our niche now. This is a continued privilege because classics are so for a reason, they are beautifully written, and always an utter joy.

Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright
Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright

A key aspect of Theatrical Niche’s work is education workshops. Can you expand a bit more on how these allow engagement with your shows?

Yes – the workshops are a lot of fun. We mainly do free workshops for group ticket-holders, but often make bespoke educational creations for schools or universities who are studying the text or playwright too.

What has been so natural & successful about the whole workshop process is that we literally take exact rehearsal techniques that the professional actors have been using to create character, movement etc., and ask the participants to go through the same.

Everyone is treated just as the professionals are, and similarly wonderful results are expected.. And often we get such brilliant creativity from the fresh minds amongst the workshops that we wished they had been around earlier to chip in!

Anyway, those who take part will then spot those same techniques in action during the show, so they know exactly how it was created, and have those insights to take away with them, pass on – and hopefully use to create their own work with.

You seem to be a company constantly punching above its weight with reviews discussing both technical and textual innovations in your shows: where is Theatrical Niche heading as it approaches its tenth anniversary?

That’s very kind thank you! Ah gosh, time shoots on by doesn’t it.

For 2020, we are returning to Moliere in the Autumn with The Misanthrope – which is actually less based on Commedia archetypes, and more on emotional journeys and character development (whilst still being very funny!)

It also throws up some brilliant questions about who we are, and what we are willing to compromise in order to get what we want. With funding, we also hope to make this show more accessible – using audio description where we can.

After that, there are several ideas in the mix but mainly – I hope we get to work with some of the wonderful artists who have brought us this far again! I hope we will expand as a company and take them with us.

These London runs have been a long time coming but aren’t possible without both Arts Council and philanthropic support (the immense Ian Taylor in this case). Most of all, I hope that we continue to find ways to sustain the art, the artists behind it – and get it out there (at low cost) to audiences across the UK & Ireland, and with a great deal of luck/perseverance/guidance: even further afield.

Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright
Uncle Vanya production image by Ali Wright

My thanks to Venetia for her time.

You can book for the London run of Uncle Vanya and find out more about Theatrical Niche by visiting their website and social media.

Frankenstein (Richmond Theatre)

The most recent stop of the UK tour of this new adaptation was in Richmond last night. Rona Munro has adapted Mary Shelley’s novel and put the teenage writer front and centre, adding a constant commentary on the story as we see it and even interacting with her own characters.

It’s an interesting conceit which attempts to bring the author and her own imagination back into the Frankenstein legend. Whether it quite comes off is debatable, but it gives a new take to what is by now a very familiar story, and the topic of many years of horror films: the most famous being the series with a shuffling monster in the shape of Boris Karloff.

Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley
Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley

We’re on a ship in the Arctic at the start of the show, and a hysterical Victor Frankenstein (an excellent debut from Ben Castle-Gibb) is being rescued. His trauma isn’t fully understood, yet, but he is searching for someone (or something) that terrifies him.

Enter Mary Shelley. She’s a teenager, she’s sarcastic and manipulative, and she goads her characters into behaving the way her horror story demands, with throwaway asides throughout. She’s petulant and opinionated, and it feels as if a modern mind has been transplanted into this Victorian woman, out of kilter with the times.

She’s there when Victor accepts a course of study with a progressive Professor, and when he brings his grotesque Creature to life. She’s there in the white-grey set of platforms, ladders, caves and climbing steps, watching his family dynamics.

Michael Moreland as the monster
Michael Moreland as the monster

This is a horror story, a caution about interfering with the natural order of things. It has, as the book does, a sympathetic and intelligent monster who first seeks love and understanding, then turns on his creator (addressed in a succession of chilling scenes where they meet as “Father”), and starts to kill those he holds most dear.

Shelley’s novel is faithfully presented, and the set (by Becky Minto) and lighting, with added fog and chills, adds to the unease – but I found the story somewhat rushed and the author’s participation muddled at times. I understood Munro’s attempts to bring modern feminism into the narrative, and the depiction of a writer overcome by her own nightmares, but it didn’t quite gel.

A powerful finish, though, with a Creature stage forward and centre as Shelley herself takes on the mantle of all-powerful creator and inventor.

Set design for Frankenstein

Frankenstein continues at Richmond Theatre until 23 November. Photo credits Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

I Do! I Do! (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

A musical version of the 1951 play The Four Poster, this revival of the show by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (first seen in 1966) is simply staged but winningly performed.

Agnes (Gemma Maclean) and Michael (Ben Morris) are young, idealistic, and dressing for their wedding when we first meet them. In love, with the world ahead of them, wondering at what lies ahead, sizing up each other.

Through a cycle of songs over the next 90 minutes or so, we follow them through their honeymoon, becoming parents, irritation with each other’s habits, infidelity, coping with teenage children, working through their dreams and regrets, and finally leaving an empty nest.

Agnes and Michael in I Do! I Do!
Agnes and Michael in I Do! I Do!

Upstairs at the Gatehouse boasts a large stage area flanked by seats on three sides. The economy of I Do! I Do! requires minimal musical accompaniment, in this case pianist and MD Henry Brennan, who adds flourishes and detached amusement as the events onstage unfold.

This is a traditional musical score for two people, and each song has the right amount of sparkle: I particularly enjoyed spiky duet Nobody’s Perfect and the wife’s solo Flaming Agnes, but the whole score is melodic, memorable, and moves the plot along.

I Love My Wife and The Father of the Bride are solos for Michael at different stages in his life: one sweet, one sardonic. When The Kids Get Married talks of all the dreams an older married couple still have of what they never did, and will never do.

Michael and Agnes in I Do! I Do!
Michael and Agnes in I Do! I Do!

I liked the acknowledgement now and then that the Gatehouse is a relatively small space, with a very close audience, as Michael seeks some ego boosting for his novel writing and has a throwaway line the morning after his wedding night.

Agnes is the most complex of the two, at first settling for the roles destined for her as wife, mother and shopper, eventually as time progressing wanting something that defines her as herself. The years have changed her, but Michael proves to stay the same, right down to “chewing” in his sleep.

This lively and welcome revival of a minor American classic ran at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 16 November 2019, directed by Joseph Hodges and designed by Emily Bestow (set) and Joseph Ed Thomas (lighting).

Photo credits by Kevin Ralph.

Mary Poppins (Prince Edward Theatre)

The world’s favourite, “practically perfect” nanny returns to London in this revival of Mary Poppins, a hybrid of the much-loved 1964 film, the books of PL Travers, and some new material from writer Julian Fellowes with songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The Sherman brothers songs from the Disney screen version have been cut back – big set pieces Chim Chim Che-ree/Step in Time, Let’s Go Fly a Kite, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious survive the scissors, plus a snatch of A Spoonful of Sugar, but favourites such as the ceiling tea party and the bank choral piece are gone.

In their place are Mrs Corry’s sweet shop, with shining gingerbread stars, and a terrifying couple of scenes – Mr Banks’s old nanny, Miss Andrew proves to be a mirror of The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch, and the discarded toys take over the nursery in Playing the Game.

Promotional poster for Mary Poppins

Mrs Banks no longer marches for women’s suffrage, but regrets leaving the stage behind for respectable society; the kitchen proves a riot on the eve of a dinner party; and instead of a run on the bank, a couple of contrasting investments cause Banks to fall out of favour and become increasingly dischevelled.

In casting Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp as Mary and Bert, Richard Eyre’s production adds a firm but fair portrayal of the nanny who has an understated arrival but a spectacular exit, and a sense of cheeky fun in the chap who has “learned every trade”.

Joseph Millson as Banks needs a little more backbone and amplification, but he sings well enough and gives a sense of the conventially repressed Victorian male, eventually proving to be rather touching as he remembers how to be a father.

Mary, Bert, and company
Mary, Bert, and company

Amy Griffiths is sparkling as the showgirl who is coming to terms with Being Mrs Banks, and Imogen Bourn’s Jane and Joseph Duffy’s Michael are fine as the children. She’s a bit more temperamental than the Disney version, and he’s a terror, but their sense of wonder is lovely.

Claire Moore is so good as the gorgon Miss Andrew you have to like her, while Malinda Parris has infectious charm as the witch who has the power to recall the past. Add in Petula Clark’s haunting bit as the Bird Woman (happy birthday, as she turned 87 yesterday), and you have a decent team of leads.

Then there’s the magic. Flying, tricks, illusions, all of which hark back to the innocence of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. With a fantastic automated set from Bob Crowley, strong lighting by Hugh Vanstone, acrobatic statues, and a vibrant musical accompaniment conducted by Graham Hurman, Mary Poppins will keep you smiling.

The Banks family in Mary Poppins
The Banks family in Mary Poppins

It does have to be said that there were still some slight sound issues last night, as reported during previews, and I hope these can be addressed soon: they are not enough to detract from the enjoyment of the show, but still enough not to go unmentioned.

In all, this is a marevellous and enjoyable show which can be enjoyed by those new to Poppins and fans of the classic film alike. It is currently playing at the Prince Edward until the end of March 2020.

Photo credits Johan Persson.

i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (Bunker Theatre)

Despite the recent news that the Bunker will be closing its doors in March 2020 due to redevelopment of its site, Chris Sonnex and his team continue to programme interesting and challenging work.

i will still be whole is the most recent play by writer and critic Ava Wong Davies. A piece written for two women to perform, it explores the delicate balance between the mother-daughter bond and the individual sense of self.

Joy (Tuyen Do) is the mother of Esther, known as EJ (Aoife Hinds), but she has not been present in her life for years. In a prelude and two scenes, they only truly speak to and interact with each other during the third segment, when their awkwardness brings an uncomfortable and disturbing feel to the proceedings.

Aoife Hinds as EJ, Tuyen Do as Joy
Aoife Hinds as EJ, Tuyen Do as Joy

We never get a feel for why Joy walked away, and when she seems open to explanation, EJ doesn’t want to know. Her relationship with her dad, who needs care after a slight stroke, seems complex, but is left unexplored.

There are the flimsiest of connections between the two women: the noisy pipes next to the bedroom wall, the eyes EJ has inherited from her Chinese mother. Neither know about flowers. Both are reticent, and mirror each other’s movements at times as if the umbilical cord that once bound them was never truly broken.

i will still be whole is tightly written in terms of dialogue, but the playscript leaves the stage directions open to interpretation (“it should take as long as it takes”) for the more profound moments. It can be assumed that director Helen Morley has worked in collaboration with Do and Hinds to make these broken women, not really whole without each other, not really whole when they are together, feel believable.

Aoife Hinds and Tuyen Do
Aoife Hinds and Tuyen Do

The set by Grace Venning is full of weeds and untended greenery; we are in the garden where EJ crouches, watching the fox, and in the space where Joy runs to the first meeting in thirteen years with the child she carried, nurtured and abandoned.

Wong Davies weaves deeply poetic language into an everyday situation – the attempted reconciliation of an estranged family. In her dialogue, Joy and EJ exchange pleasantries while their body language betrays their real feelings, and before they meet their interior monologues explore physical conflicts at odd with the words they speak.

At the end, Joy tells a story about a baby bird, crushed at the foot of a tree. It’s a telling moment from a woman who admitted feeling nothing for the child she was “full of”. Where do they go from here?

i will still be whole continues at the Bunker to the 23 November. You can book tickets at The Bunker’s website. Images by Fran Cattaneo.

Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

This has been running in London for two years, and arrived with a great fanfare after Broadway success and Tony wins. It’s still being advertised as “the room where it happens”, but is it really all that?

This is my first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, which has been described as the greatest musical ever made. (Spoiler: it isn’t). Money has clearly been poured into this production by the bucketload, and it shows. Everything is slick. The lighting, the sets, the music, the choreography.

The theatre, although cramped in the cheaper seats, has been sensitively renovated, and the show is clearly selling well to tourists from outside the UK, and repeat visitors. It seems to be popular amongst younger audiences, perhaps because of a reliance on modern music forms like hip-hop, which represent roughly 50% of the score.

The truth is, I just didn’t care about Alexander Hamilton, so when he faces adversity like blackmail, family bereavement and a Salieri-Mozart type relationship with “your villain” Aaron Burr, I find it hard to get emotionally involved.

Alexsnder Hamilton and company
Alexsnder Hamilton and company

The cast work hard – I liked Sufiso Mazibuko as Burr (great voice throughout) and Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, in particular – but the lack of a central character to click with weakened the piece as a whole. Light relief from King George III (Gavin Spokes) was fun but frankly out of place, and Angelica (Sharon Rose), who saw Hamilton first but let her sister marry him, was well acted.

Musically, Hamilton doesn’t know where to put itself. The hip-hop opening, the rap trash talk over the Constitution, the comic number with a catchy refrain for the King, and more traditionally melodic musical numbers sat uneasily together, and made the show as a whole drag badly in places.

Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy
Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy

Photos by Matthew Murphy. Hamilton continues at the Victoria Palace.

Please note that the paperless ticketing system currently in operation comes to an end in early December, from which time tickets will be posted out. I’m told by a staff member at the Victoria Palace this will increase ticket touting but, be sensible if you want to see Hamilton. Prices range between £30-200, so there is something for everyone, and the view from the grand circle is absolutely fine

Maiden Speech: Game Face – work in progress (Tristan Bates Theatre)

Devised and performed by Lexi Clare (who has produced the whole Maiden Speech festival), Lucy Park (fresh from the marvellous Tokyo Rose) and Katie Paterson, Game Face looks at issues around beauty, perceptions of female identity, mental health and queerness, through quick fixes, confessions, and riotous games.

Lexi Clare
Lexi Clare

The three women in the cast start off with a song about beauty, and the value society puts on certain “norms” such as a skinny body, light skin, well-fitting clothes. The assumption is also that society expects women to dress up, paint their faces, and generally refrain for “letting themselves go”.

Game Face explores, in an accessible and fairly light-hearted style, how these aspirations and expectations can cause problems ranging from a lack of personal confidence to eating disorders and mental health conditions.

Stylistically, it needs time to focus and settle, and I found some aspects worked more effectively than others. Lucy, for example, slipping into her native Korean now and then, didn’t really feel as if it had a purpose, and was quickly forgotten. The jenga game between Lexi and Lucy was full of skill, but pethaps distracted from the accompanying discussion.

Lexi Clare and Lucy Park
Lexi Clare and Lucy Park

What did work well was the personal aspect of the show. In the competition section it felt very much as if we were engaging with the real experiences of the cast and not characters they had created. This in turn led audience members to reflect (quietly!) on their own experiences with weight and body image.

Equally strong was a song from Katie about the Daphne-Apollo myth, where he pursued her until she called for help and was turned into a tree. Even then, his dominance was asserted as he plucked her leaves to create celebratory laurels.

There is a lot here to develop into a show that feels coherent – I’d either move the projected text so we can see it (if it is key to the show), or drop it (if it isn’t) – but Game Face is a funny and thorough look at the unrealistic expectations that plague us, driven by money-making companies and the male gaze.

Game Face continues tomorrow at 8.30pm in the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Maiden Speech: Boses (Tristan Bates Theatre)

The Maiden Speech Festival (so called in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, who made her maiden speech in the House of Commons in June 2015) is now in its third year of presenting women’s work in the theatre.

I was invited to review shows in the festival this year by its enterprising producer Lexi Clare, and chose two shows playing on the same night: the first being a one-woman piece called Boses.

Full of sobering facts and figures about the plight of female Filipino domestic workers in the UK, Boses is part reportage, part song cycle and is devised and performed by Melisa Camba. She gives us a statistic to think about early on: 17.000 domestic workers are brought to the UK each year, 67% are Filipino, 94% are women.

Publicity images for Boses
Publicity images for Boses

Since the introduction of “tied visas” a few years ago, migrant workers have lost any rights to the protection of employment law, and many are trapped in the homes of wealthy employers who do not pay them, make them work long hours with no days off, and do not allow them the freedom to go outside.

These modern slaves, explains Camba, are invisible and often desperate. In one scene, she graphically acts out the daily grind of a migrant domestic worker while an explanation flashes up on screen about the difficult rigmorole of obtaining a visa.

Elsewhere, she builds and then navigates a white (why not red?) tape square, while outlining more stories of women who sleep on the floor, are called by animal names, and forced to work 18 hour days.

Newpaper headlines are shown detailing the level of state-sanctioned oppression of workers who are often physically and mentally abused, but criminalised if they try to leave their employment. Audio testimony details the inability for many of these women to leave places where they believed they would have a better life.

Wall in the theatre decorated for the festival.
Wall in the theatre decorated for the festival.

Camba adds contexual commentary and melodic songs to the proceedings to give these women a voice, perhaps even a bit of hope. I enjoyed the piece, and it made me think, but it isn’t strictly “theatre”, and it suffers a bit from not having a strong character arc – the Filipino woman who touches down at the airport is put to one side after her arrival in the opening scene.

Boses ran at the Maiden Speech festival until 13 November, and was a biligual performance in English and Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines).

Clouds (King’s Head)

Time and Again Theatre have brought this one-hour show down from Edinburgh for a short tour in London. Writer Laura Crow continues in the role of Winifred ‘Freddy’ Baxter, a forthright woman who wishes to become a pilot and take part in a major race.

The time in 1913, the place is a private airfield on the land of wealthy enthusiast Sir Hugh. We are on the cusp of war, with “rumblings in Europe”. The suffragettes are stepping up their campaign to obtain votes for women.

Laura Crow, centre. Photograph from the Edinburgh production.
Laura Crow, centre. Photograph from the Edinburgh production.

The staging is simple: a period plane dominates the space, and props are minimal. Freddy’s friend, Sylvia (Jessica Balmer), and brother, Teddy (Kieran Palmer) are supportive of her adventurous spirit, but flying instructor Bloom (Tim Cooper) and “Lady M” (Julia Burrow) take time to warm to her unconventional spirit.

With several revelations coming through during the play about Lady M’s past, Bloom’s family life (an interesting but undeveloped take on domestic violence), and the injustice which has plagued the lives of the Baxter children, flying tends to take a back seat at times.  Indeed we only hear the sound of a plane once, in the extremely effective final scene.

A sweet and understated love story between Teddy and the innocent, naive Sylvia, has potential, but the shadows of both potential national conflict and political suffrage intervention seem to foretell a future as stormy as the clouds Teddy loves so much.

Laura Crow in Clouds
Laura Crow in Clouds

There are strong scenes between Freddy and Bloom, who clearly develop a liking and respect for each other; and between Freddy and Lady M (who has stepped aside from her own love of the skies and mechanicals to become “a lady and a wife” in a marriage filled with the disappointment of having no children).

I would have preferred to see Freddy soaring into triumph into the skies rather than dealing with the spectre of illness, but it gives an emotional arc that cuts through her brashness. She’s well-played as a no-nonsense Northern woman who copes reasonably well in society: she’s no Sylvia, who is elegantly poised and well spoken, but she’s no inferior, either.

Clouds feels as if it has many stories still to tell, and with a larger budget and duration, it could be a deeply involving show about inspirational women. It’s well on the way, and I would urge you to take a look when it returns to the New Wimbledon Studio from 25-27 November.

Kelli O’Hara (Cadogan Hall)

The latest in the season of Broadway performers brought over to showcase their takents at Cadogan Hall, Kelli O’Hara (last seen here in The King and I) proves to be adept at the Great American Songbook, opera and even a bit of country rock.

With a five piece band – four of which “I only met yesterday”, O’Hara presents a carefully chosen set of songs, beginning with I Have Dreamed (Tuptim and Lun Tha duet) and ending with Edith Piaf’s immortal La Vie en Rose.

She boasts an impressive vocal range and an emotional maturity which brings songs such as This Nearly Was Mine (Emile’s solo from South Pacific) and The Light in the Piazza (Clara’s song from the musical of the same name) into sharp focus, making them real and moving.

Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O’Hara

In contrast, OHara returned squarely to her Oklahoma roots in a riotous song about a country star who can’t make it in the opera, until her child decides to prematurely scramble into the world, that is, making his mother hit the high notes and utter “some cuss words”.

Elsewhere we had a couple of Sondheim songs: What More Do I Need (from Saturday Night) and Finishing The Hat (from Sunday in the Park with George). We heard of Nellie Forbush’s “wonderful guy” (South Pacific), and about Getting to Know You (The King and I).

To Build a Home, from The Bridges of Madison County, seemed to click and fly much more than it did with Jenna Russell’s exaggerated accent at the Menier earlier this year; I may need to give the musical another listen.

KelliO'Hara in The King and I
KelliO’Hara in The King and I

Equally charming was a “mashup” of the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun and Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental composition Smile, which O’Hara dedicated to her son. Every mention of her husband Greg, himself a songwriter and musician, and their two children, felt joyous.

O’Hara is s fine singer who makes even the highest soprano notes feel effortless – in songs like Lerner and Loewe’s I Could Have Danced All Night (My Fair Lady) and He Loves Me (from She Loves Me) her sense of playful fun comes through, too.

SUPERFAN: Nosedive (Barbican Centre, Pit)

Company of Nosedive

This vibrant show from Scotland-based new physical theatre group SUPERFAN has just taken up a short residence at the Barbican’s Pit. It proves to be an interesting commentary on the nature of childhood, time and space, hopes and dreams.

Three adults: one man, two women. Two children: a boy, a girl, both ten years old. With attempts to fall, float, fly and climb we are caught in a hour of circus lifts and acrobatics, of tumbling and fumbling, reaching and crawling, climbing, colliding and trampling.

The children are lifted on to shoulders, mimic the adults in their movements, tentatively explore their own routines. The adults pull at the faces of the children, almost digging into the elasticity which is hand in hand with an innocent view of the world.

There are three scenes, each telegraphed by a change of costume (and in one case by a dry ice machine which feels like a comment on Greta Thunberg’s engagement with climate change). We see movement, we have short sections of chat, and we have the opportunity to place any meaning we want to on the piece.

Company of Nosedive

Sadly, last night there were no programmes available to give us further insight. In the downloadable version online the founders of SUPERFAN (Ellie Dubois, Pete Lannon and Kim Donohoe) describe it thus:

We wanted to create a space to see things magnified – a place where all the performers have is each other, where we can see their different bodies and relationships in close-up. We are interested in the politics of how adults and children move together, and in the pressure we put on children to be the saviours of our future.

Ellie, Kim and Pete: SUPERFAN

The performers are JD Brousse, Michelle Ross, and Nikki Rummer (adults) and Albie Gaizely-Gardiner, Lachlan Payne (children); they devised Nosedive together, with additional input from Holly Middleton.

Nosedive will continue at the Barbican until 16 November. It is directed by Ellie Dubois and Pete Lannon and you can book at https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/superfan-nosedive.

Photo credits: Brian Hartley

Camden Street Art Tour

Recently I joined the delightful Nelly Balazs for a wander around the legal and illegal street artwork in Camden Town.

Before the tour I have been interested in street art for a while, taking photographs in Hackney Wick, the skateboarding space on the South Bank, and the Leake Street graffiti tunnel in Waterloo. Of the artists themselves and the ethos behind their work I knew very little.

Illegal street artwork by Mau Mau
Get Rich or Try Sharing, illegal street artwork by Mau Mau. Placed in the vicinity of four banks.

Balazs is a photographer, facilitator and curator who works closely with artists from around the world, finding legal surfaces for them to paint and arranging partnerships with suppliers to reduce the costs involved in creating a work (which can run into thousands for a full wall piece).

Her vision is to add value to real estate by brightening up outside surfaces with art, and we saw some of the work she has collaborated on as we progressed through the streets behind Camden High Street.

All You Need Is Love by Chris Riggs, with additional vandalism
All You Need Is Love by Chris Riggs, legal space, with additional vandalism.

For me, as a detached observer, there is a conflict between the commercialization of what was originally a counter-culture expression of graffiti tags and politicized slogans. Balazs explained that legal surface artwork avoids political comment to protect those who own the space.

Respect between artists was also discussed – we looked at Bambi’s Amy Winehouse (illegally painted) which originally showed the singer with closed eyes but now has a companion stencil by a local artist, Morganico, now deceased, who altered the eyes to a disconcerting stare. The local connection between the second artist and Winehouse makes the almost-merging of the two works acceptable.

Illegal street artwork by Bambi and Morganico
Illegal street artwork by Bambi and Morganico.

En route, we heard about the conflict between old school graffiti artists and wealthy artists who treat it as a successful business. The most obvious example of this is Banksy (whose artwork on the side of a private house is no longer visible here, having been painted over by the owners), who is an anonymous millionaire known for his publicity stunts.

Balazs seeks out artists of quality for presentations in her festivals and use of the spaces she facilitates, inviting them to participate and seeding collaborations. We also discussed the reach of social media (particularly Instagram) and noted that many artworks include these tags.

Examples of both legal and illegal street art in Camden
Examples of both legal and illegal street art in Camden

We noted that many pieces showed vandalism from graffiti tags, which is a shame: in some cases, the artist will return to repair their work, but in others new artworks will utilise the space.

Part of the joy of visiting these spaces, to me, is seeing that juxtaposition of styles, whether the sleek presentation of a piece made to last, a piece of fading commercial art, or a witty piece of traditional graffiti.

Street art by Alice Pasquini
Street art by Alice Pasquini

The range of work on display in a relatively short space here is interesting in itself, and with many legal spaces constantly changing with transient works, Camden repays repeat visits.

Detail from collaboration between Stinkfish and DRT
Detail from collaboration between Stinkfish and DRT

I would recommend this walk which I booked through Funzing (reasonably priced at £15, minus £5 as it was my first event booked through this platform). It ran approximately 1 hr 50 and started and ended in close proximity to Camden Town tube station.

Collaboration between Choots and 10 Hun
Collaboration between Choots and 10 Hun

Black is the Color of My Voice / Soul Sessions (Watermans Arts Centre)

Apphia Campbell’s play inspired by the life of Nina Simone returns to the London stage with a one-off performance at the Watermans in Brentford, under their Friday Nights Live umbrella.

The character we see on stage is not exactly Simone, although the songs sung are associated with her, including Mississippi Goddamn and I Put a Spell on You (written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose version we hear played on a taped selection of songs covered by Simone, before the show starts). This lady becomes “Mina Bordeaux”, changing her name for the same reasons as Simone, to protect her church family from the association with “the Devil’s music”.

Campbell, in hair wrap and pulling items from a battered suitcase, pulls us into Mina/Nina’s world, imitiating her Bible-thumping mother, reinacting the classical concert where her parents were evicted from their prime “whites-only” seats, girlishly gushing over innocent love letters from her first boyfriend, recounting the vicious assault from the man who became her husband.

In song, she is no imitator but rather a celebrator of the woman who has clearly given her inspiration to become a singer and an activist (her follow-up show, Woke, is far more concerned with matters of race). The title of the play, Black is the Color of My Voice, both references the fact that she, Campbell, and Simone are both black women, but also the gentle Scots folk song which Simone made part of her regular repertoire in 1959.

Mina is a precocious talent, playing piano from the age of three, and dreaming of playing Carnegie Hall as a concert pianist. The fame she seeks comes with the civil rights movement and her songs of protest, fighting for the visibility of “my people” in the shadow of the speeches of Martin Luther King.

Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux
Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux

Soul Sessions, which has sometimes been performed together with the preceding play, was included in yesterday’s ticket as the second half of a double bill. Campbell returns to the stage in a long red gown and pearl necklace, engaging the audience in chat and delivering a range of Simone songs (accompanied by her pianist Tim Shaw).

With “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin), “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (Donaldson and Kahn), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her, but better known here for the hit version by The Animals), “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” (MacDermot/Ragni/Rado), there is a flick of recognition and even some singing along – but the power of both Simone’s words and Campbell’s performance comes through in “Four Women” before the inevitable encore of the anthemic “Feeling Good” (Newley and Bricusse) which Simone truly made her own.

Soul Sessions is largely playful and teasing, stripped back to a sleek presentation by this confident performer who has even “forgotten my shoes”. It’s a relief in a way after the draining play we saw in the first half, a contrast to the hard life we have witnessed. I highly recommend both shows (which run at 70 minutes and 50 minutes respectively), but they can clearly stand on their own.

Apphia Campbell
Apphia Campbell

Groan Ups (Vaudeville Theatre)

The latest show from Mischief Theatre – we are reminded at the curtain call that this is the third of their shows currently running in the West End – is undoubtedly funny but a little overlong.

Groan Ups centres on a group of five schoolmates who we see on three separate occasions. As year two children in 1994 they are rather obsessed with scatalogical and sexual matters, wrecking assembly with frank admissions about their parents and themselves. Children, of course, have no filters at that age.

Cast of Groan Ups
Cast of Groan Ups

Class clown Spencer (Henry Lewis) has a beard (which must have seemed funnier in planning as he hasn’t in the photo on the programme cover). He is loud, boisterous, and unintentionally cruel to hamsters.

After an interlude in the classroom where we see the dynamic between the children already developing, there’s a jump to year nine in 2001. The friends are now teenagers, and perceptively awkward, convincing as they try to figure out the transition from childhood into puberty.

Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis and Zamit in Groan Ups
Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis and Zamit in Groan Ups

Katie (Charlie Russell) and Simon (George Haynes in last night’s episode, covering for co-writer Jonathan Sayer) seem the most realistic characters. She provides a depiction of a bored and neglected wife as an adult which rings true, while he transitions from the class weakling to a corporate loser trying to impress.

Less successful as characters are the dreadful Moon (Nancy Zamit), self-obsessed and bitchy, and Archie (Henry Shields), whose secret is obvious right from his year two revelation of what he did at the weekend.

In act two we are in the present day, at a school reunion, where events move quickly into farce and bring the most laughs, with Simon’s insecurity and trophy girlfriend “Chemise” (Bryony Corrigan), and Spencer’s hamster armageddon.

Russell, Shields, Zamit, Sayer in Groan Ups
Russell, Shields, Zamit, Sayer in Groan Ups

The wordplay is occasionally amusing (“the Prime Sinister”, “he must be executed as a detergent”), but the fast-moving knockabout is what truly pulls the laughs. Lewis and Haynes in particular are gifted physical comics, and some of Russell’s facial expressions are priceless.

Cut back by around half an hour (I’d lose the closing scene, despite the fun costume, and trim down the repetitive character of Paul – we get it, very quickly), and tightened up a bit, Groan Ups would hit its targets more effectively.

As it is, there’s plenty here to justify a nostalgic night out with lines and situations which may well make you shuffle uncomfortably in your seats – remembering your own formative years and being thankful they’ve passed.

Corrigan, Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis, Zamit in Groan Ups
Corrigan, Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis, Zamit in Groan Ups

Groan Ups is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. It runs at the Vaudeville until 1 December.

Photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Reputation (The Other Palace, Studio)

“It’s plagiarism with rhythm, and there’s nothing better than a good … Reputation.”

We are in mid-1930s Hollywood, where hot-shot writer Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Seacomb) churns out successful screenplays for the big studios. Larceny is a legal term for theft, of course, so the musical is already setting the character up as the bad guy.

Over in a Paris college, Michelle Grant (Maddy Banks, so good earlier in the year in Closer to Heaven, and memorable here as the girl with a plot and a dream) gets hold of a copy of Variety and a route to potential fame.

Company of Reputation
Company of Reputation

When the dastardly Larceny steals her story, Michelle isn’t going to let it go, which brings romance into the plot with the arrival of law whizz Archie Bright (Ed Wade, who displays an enviable singing range in “I Knew” but sports an incongruous hairstyle for the period).

Reputation is undoubtedly corny (with the odd clunky rhyme: “Clark Gable and Errol Flynn/standing there when I walk in”), mostly fun, and somewhat sexist, with Larceny literally putting his feet on an adoring female crawling on the floor in one scene.

Secomb’s portrayal of Freddy Larceny is overpowering and somewhat reminiscent of Applegate, the devil figure in Damn Yankees, with a dash of the Astaire hat-tip in the number “Don’t Mess With Freddy”. He’s there as the unreliable narrator in a way, but also to add a snip of devious charm.

With twenty-five songs, including a torch song for a chanteuse not unlike Josephine Baker (“Raindrops”, sung in French and English by the sultry Priscille Grace), and a bedroom gush for the girls (“My Prince Charming”, with pillows and dancing which made me think of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Oklahoma), this feels like a love letter to movie musicals.

Jeremy Secomb as Freddy and company of Reputation
Jeremy Secomb as Freddy and company of Reputation

Although the final third stretches incredulity – a patter song for Cory Peterson’s judge doesn’t quite come off, and the reveal of a certain secret feels straight off the pulp fiction page – we all love a happy ending, and we all like to hiss the villain.

The Oscar for Best Original Story was last presented in 1956, which suggests that Hollywood has devalued the Michelle Grants of this world over the years, while the Larcenys (“I taught Cagney to say ‘you dirty rat'”) prosper.

Still, the dreamworld of 30s Tinseltown comes across in a good-looking production, with strong support from Lauren Ingram as the “supportive best friend”, plus Charlie Dennis, Eleanor Tollan and Ashleigh Cavanagh.

Maddy Banks as Michelle and company of Reputation
Maddy Banks as Michelle and company of Reputation

Oddly, choreographer Tamsyn Salter has a featured role but isn’t mentioned on the cast page of the programme: she seems to be there just to guide the deportment number “Laydeez” that opens Act Two, with an accent that veers into comic territory like the madame in The Boy Friend.

There are also strange character omissions: Archie’s invisible friend Tom, who Ingram’s Mary sees as a potential romantic partner; tough lawyer Jackson; and the figure who alters the course of Michelle’s case. These seem to hint at underwriting rather than conscious artistic decisions, and Tom in particular seems a loss to the plot and Mary’s own trajectory.

Reputation has music and lyrics by Alick Glass, and is co-authored by Alick and Suzanne Glass. Warren Wills (who plays lively piano along with an uncredited double bassist) directs the show, and Nick Richings designed the atmospheric lighting, with washes of colour, spotlights, and rotating projection.

This new musical will leave you with a smile on your face, and it certainly entertains: more so if you love the films and songs of the 30s, as I do. A general audience may find it somewhat fluffy and simplistic for our modern world – but you can decide for yourself as Reputation continues in the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace until 14 November.

Photo credits Donato.

The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Annie Baker’s 2017 play comes to a Dorfman configured for audiences on three sides of the stage, and proves something of an elusive watch.

We are in a cavernous conference room, under a huge light feature wrapping around the room like a white snake, and the people around the table are telling stories.

Sandy (Conleth Hill, outwardly amiable but giving out a sense of intolerant menace), is the facilitator, but of who and what we are never quite sure. His team seem carefully crafted but all on the periphery of “odd”, with the six participants and their note-taker seemingly trapped in time and space.

Popping in to check on them is ultra-helpful and efficient PA, Sarah (Imogen Doel, who sports a different outfit on each appearance and has an amusing story of her own, in Grimm Fairy Tale style).

The only other woman in the piece is Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor, whose contributions are disregarded for most of the two-hour running time, but who is given the closing word.

The company of The Antipodes: Matthews, Bardock, Milner, Hill, Fraser, Darvill, Akinade, McQuarrie
The company of The Antipodes: Matthews, Bardock, Milner, Hill, Fraser, Darvill, Akinade, McQuarrie

Eleanor seems to be a nod to diversity, alongside Adam (the marvellous Fisayo Akinade), a black man whose stories also go unrecorded. Brian the notetaker (Bill Milner) is a weird bundle of neurosis, while Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 briefly holds the stage with a skin-tingling story about chickens.

The table is complete with Hadley Fraser’s time-obsessed Josh, Arthur Darvill’s Dave (who turns tragic memories into the stuff of throwaway laughs), and intense Danny M1 (Matt Bardock, who stares at Eleanor and recounts a particularly repulsive story about his adultery).

Co-directed by Baker and Chloe Lamford (who also designs set and costumes), this frustrating piece raises questions about who the group are working for (the disembodied voice of Max via satellite link constantly failing seems a metaphor for the struggle for a true story), and what happens to those who don’t conform.

Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes
Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes

There’s a story of HR whistleblowing which treats the disappearance of the last female participant as an aside, and Danny M2 does not return after the chicken story. Meanwhile, one of the group seems invisible, having to sign document after document but still not being welcomed into the fold.

On the surface The Antipodes seems to be a satire on corporate brainstorming, but why does Sandy slowly retreat from the group and quite what is wrong with his wife Rachel?

What does the constant and worsening poor weather mean? Are we in a world which simply imagines this scenario, or have these characters been inducted into some infinite business hell?

I found the omission of an interval rendered The Antipodes a bit of a bore at times, and perhaps we could have all done with a break. However, there were moments around movement (freezes, slow motion) that worked well, and perhaps the play could have taken a further jump of weirdness.

The Antipodes continues at the Dorfman until 23 November. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.

Sydney and the Old Girl (Park Theatre)

This new play by Eugene O’Hare proves to be an ink-black comedy with a firm grasp of inter-generational voices and an undercurrent of menace. Sydney and the Old Girl refers to a son and a mother. We first meet them in the living room where she, wheelchair-bound, and he, tetchy and trying to mend an ancient television, spit constant insults at each other.

Nell, a widow who isn’t quite as helpless as she first appears, has never loved Sydney, who “makes her skin crawl”. He, in turn, is abusive and seems disturbed, flying into a rage at the sound of emergency vehicle sirens, simmering with resentment at his mother. It’s an intriguing set-up.

Slowly, O’Hare crafts a piece which moves through snappy, vicious, and often comic dialogue to open up a picture of this family. There’s another son who died young – a lengthy exchange in act two explains more about Bertie’s loss and how his brother Sydney dealt with it. The only other character we see is an Irish home-help, Mrs Fee, who helps a charity for orphans from her country, and seems on good terms with Nell.

Miriam Margoyles and Mark Hadfield in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles and Mark Hadfield in Sydney and the Old Girl

The set by Ruth Hall and Max Jones feels stuck in a timewarp, with wood panelling and furniture (sideboard, drinks cabinet), and a flowered carpet with clashing paisley chair. Sydney wears a paisley tie at one point, we guess his father’s, and claims to have always liked the pattern. It is the kind of room an old woman would inhabit, do her rollers, “dry her smalls”, and have an occasional nip of whisky. An East London space that hasn’t moved on since Sydney was a child.

Miriam Margoyles effortlessly inhabits the character of the monstrous Nell which was written with her in mind. This woman hides moments of fear and vulnerability behind insults. She even pushes away her one ally to save her relationship with her son, however empty and destructive that might be.

As Sydney, slightly effeminate, definitely creepy – twice he greedily sniffs at Mrs Fee’s coat collar as it lays across the chair – Mark Hadfield is convincing. His days are filled with ways to torment his mother and he struggles with years of hurt and neglect. His only constant is a large red bag which stands out in the room like a sinister beacon, drawing our eyes to it.

Miriam Margoyles and Vivien Parry in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles and Vivien Parry in Sydney and the Old Girl

Mrs Fee is a secondary character, but a pivotal one, and Vivien Parry catches her sunny kindness and troubled reticence. However she is not as well developed as mother and son, and we don’t quite know what her motivation is. Until it was clear she had a husband I thought she might be a woman of God; certainly she contrasts with the earthy Nell who boasts she “was known in the Docklands … I weren’t shy neither”.

Sydney and the Old Girl is billed as a comedy, but it is a deeply disturbing one, and the laughter which greets some of the lines feels almost wrong as the play progresses to a catastrophic confusion (but not one you might expect, and in fact I misinterpreted it until I read the play text ending on the way home).

With tight direction by Phillip Breen, with minimal scene changes and sound design by Dyfan Jones, evoking the sounds outside in the London streets, we are pulled straight into this claustrophobic space where memories are in every inch as nothing has changed. Sydney, back in the house where he was born, is still a child wanting his mother to notice him, and that’s a tragedy.

Miriam Margoyles in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles in Sydney and the Old Girl

A deeply intelligent play, Sydney and the Old Girl runs at the Park Theatre until 30 November. There are standing tickets still available and an in-person waiting list on the day – check https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/sydney-the-old-girl for details.

Photo credits Pete Le May.

The Permanent Way (The Vaults)

David Hare’s play is more a curated collection of verbatim interviews relating to the privatisation of British Rail into Railtrack (for the track) and seven-year private franchises (for the trains).

It begins with the cast bustling up and down the improvised stage in The Vaults long black tunnel, with just four benches as set decoration. The words of those working with the new companies leads into the testimony of those involved with the four catastrophic crashes post-privatisation: Hatfield, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Potters Bar.

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

It would be good to be able to call The Permanent Way a snapshot in history, locked back in 2003 when it was originally premiered. Sadly the concerns around cost-cutting, profiteering, and technical safety seem just as relevant today.

There are short engagements with families affected by bereavement or trauma relating to the crashes: the parents of Peter, whose body was “practically destroyed”, the man who travelled normally for a week or so before starting to have nighmares about train travel, the woman in the plastic mask who set up a survivors’ group but wished to exclude the negativity of the bereaved.

Cast of The Permanent Way

In this site-specific setting, with the rumble of overhead trains and even a slight leak from the torrential Sunday rain, the play feels tighter, sharper, and more emotionally engaging. True, the original cast had done the interviews so were more personally involved, but what we witness in The Vaults doesn’t feel like acting when it comes to witness testimony.

The John Prescott caricature has aged badly, adding a smidge of light relief where it doesn’t really belong; the same could be said of the tea ladies.. The carefully constructed mood of levity and despair is well-crafted (the rail boss who couldn’t care less, the financier who feels no guilt set against the grieving mother disgusted by an article by a survivor which talks of “human barbecue” and Nina Bawden, author, making sense of the violent end to “46 years together”).

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

The full ensemble – Lucas Hare, Jonathan Coote, Anna Acton (the financier), Sakuntala Ramanee, Paul Dodds, Tej Obano, Jonathan Tafler, Jacqui Dubois (the bereaved mother), Gabrielle Lloyd (the solicitor and Nina), act brilliantly throughout this revival, many in multiple and contrasting roles, while the dignity of survivors and the families of the bereaved is respected through the text, which drips with mounting sardonic anger.

The Permanent Way continues at the larger of the two theatres at The Vaults on Lancelot Street. It is directed by Alexander Lass.

Photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Preview: Under the Radar (interview)

A new play by Jonathon Crewe, Under the Radar plays at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham from 12 – 16 November.

Billed as “a new dark comedy about the conflicts between gender, tradition and modernity bubbling up to the surface in the contained space of a submarine”, it puts together Lee (a woman reporter) and Martin (an eccentric inventor) into a blackly comic piece in which only one of them will make it back to shore.

Jonathon Crewe has reflected in the media pack to accompany the play that “Under the Radar explores the need to look at the way tradition, society and culture uphold the patriarchy, how they uphold micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and misogyny. That until we are able to break free from these traditions, prejudiced male violence towards women will continue.”

Eleanor Hill as Lee, Nicholas Anscombe as Martin, in Under the Radar
Eleanor Hill as Lee, Nicholas Anscombe as Martin, in Under the Radar

I asked Jonathon to tell me a bit more about his play.

Your play sounds rather fascinating – do you think the characters of Lee and Martin play on your own unconscious biases as creatives at all?

JC: Given the subject matter, themes and aims of the play, as a male writer it would be disingenuous to say they didn’t.  One of the reasons I wrote the play was to put a mirror up to men and male privilege, myself included.  Many of the characteristics I developed in Martin came through reflecting on my own behaviour and of men around me.  

After writing the first few drafts, I was conscious to have the script read by female writers, editors and friends in order to assess whether my own prejudices had seeped unconsciously into the character of Lee.  This process was invaluable as it really helped me develop her character, bringing out her own desires and hang ups, inner conflicts and contradictions.  

It was absolutely vital that Lee was a rounded, real character and not just a victim figure for Martin and the audience.  Instead she becomes more than a match for him, whilst at the same time being relatable to the audience.  A couple of key influences for Lee were, of course Fleabag, but also the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian – both of which present nuanced, individuated, female characters who have to deal with the unconscious biases of the men around them and society in general.      

Gender seems to have become quite a loaded word, focusing on just what is a “man” or a “woman” and whether those definitions really can be fluid. Have these arguments impacted on your play at all?

JC: The arguments themselves didn’t impact the writing of the play as such, but the idea of gender being performative, and therefore fluid, certainly played a part in the development of the characters.  

The roles of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ tend to be socially and culturally constructed and in the past (and present too) anyone who transgressed from these risk being ‘othered’ and, to an extent, ostracised from the mainstream.  

Martin, a generation older than Lee, adheres to the normative gender roles, clear on how a woman and a man should act and be. Lee, on the other hand, is very much a modern independent woman who exhibits traditional ‘unladylike’ behaviour, which to Martin is an affront to his socio-cultural gendered status and ideology.  

However, in the play, this ‘unladylike’ behaviour is nothing more than Lee taking ownership of her own body and decisions and not allowing Martin any level of possession of her identity.  It is this transgression of normative gendered behaviour that Martin reacts to in the only way he can regain control of the male hegemony, which is violence and repression.

The setting of Under The Radar was inspired by the murder of journalist Kim Wall, as your press release states. Why was this chosen as inspiration?

JC: It’s important to note that only the scenario of the story was used in the writing of Under the Radar.  I did no research into the backgrounds of either Peter Madsen or Kim Wall, as I did not want the play to become nothing more than a macabre ‘reenactment’ which plays on a fascination with ‘true crime’ and, to an extent, mythifies the killer.  It was vital that the audience does not see Martin as Peter and therefore cast him as nothing more than an ‘abnormal’ monster, and therefore unrelatable.  

The scenario was an influence as it creates a natural microcosm of gender in society.  It really allowed me as a writer to put the characters under the microscope and bring out their unconscious behaviours on the stage.  The submarine, itself a phallic symbol, becomes an extension of Martin’s ego.  The setting, literally “under the radar”, is a chance to get under Martin’s skin, as Lee does as a sharp and intuitive reporter, and expose his biases and their connection to traditions and culture.  

From a more practical point of view, the submarine a great setting for a theatrical production and story – enclosed, pressurised and tense.

Rehearsals of Under the Radar
Rehearsals of Under the Radar

I often think that the modern man has to operate in a world of extreme caution in what they say and do. How does Martin fit into this?  

JC: I think that men in general do, to some extent, have to walk a fine line when it comes to their behaviour.  However, I don’t think this is a result of feminism or the #metoo movement.  Rather it is a result of men beginning to realise that as the hegemonic landscape is shifting, they need to challenge past behaviours and relearn how to exist in a world of sexual equality.  

Part of this is male recognition that women are not some different creature, but very much the same in terms of nuanced emotional and intellectual landscapes – same loves, hates, desires, needs etc.  As the UK’s Equalities Commission’s slogan used to be ‘Men. Women. Equal.  Different.’  If this is recognised, then I don’t think modern man has to operate with caution, but with respect for others,  be they men or women.  

Martin as a character sees this shift in gender power dynamics and, on the surface, accepts it.  However, internally he cannot reconcile that with the need to purge himself of all the biases and learned behaviours that result in his expectations of how a man and woman should act.  He walks this fine line between the internal and external, but it is because they are not reconciled and remain in conflict that he lashes out against Lee, who symbolises that clash.  

If a man feels they are walking a fine line, it’s mostly likely that they are not a ‘modern’ man, yet one still weighed down by a feeling of patriarchal entitlement that they cannot, or don’t want to, let go.    

Was Under The Radar a dark comedy from the start, or did it evolve in that direction?

JC: It was always meant to be a comedy from the outset of writing.  I wanted to undermine audience expectations, to unsettle them, to bring them closer to the characters through humour.  

It was important to make Martin surprising and engaging.  To never allow the audience the chance to distance themselves from him, or to turn him into nothing more than a ‘monster’ they couldn’t relate to.  For me, Martin must reflect the full spectrum from unconscious bias and male privilege through micro-aggressions and open misogyny to prejudiced emotional and physical abuse against women.  Using comedy to make Martin a more rounded character implicitly leads male audience members to identify more closely with him, holding up a mirror to their own behaviour.

The other reason is that comedy undermines the audience expectation of themes and treatment of themes.  I want the audience to laugh alongside Lee and Martin, to laugh at the set pieces and then be shocked at what they were laughing at and who they were laughing with.  

Humour is often used as an excuse for misogynistic behaviour, for example the multiple comments and recordings of privileged men such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, which are then brushed off by supporters as nothing more than a joke or an ironic comment.  However, this allows these comments to be legitimised, as long as they are framed as ‘humour’.  This creates feedback loops of behaviour that permeate through society and, as we have seen, devisions between groups flare up as powerful men are not called to account.  

I wanted to use comedy to expose the lie that humour is an excuse for biased behaviour.  To ask the audience to question what they’re laughing at and who they are laughing with.  

There have been many projects focusing on different aspects of #MeToo, and quite rightly so. What makes Under The Radar stand out?

JC: The #metoo movement is an essential development in society and should be embraced absolutely by both men and women.  Under the Radar is an attempt to look at why and how the #metoo movement is not just about ‘bad’ men, but about all men and the systematic inequalities created by unconscious bias and male privilege.  

What makes it different is that Under the Radar is not looking at one awful character, one ‘bad’ man, but attempting to break down the years of learned behaviour that men have, that keep bias alive and to connect small aggressions with their logical conclusions.  

Under the Radar is a way to connect man in general, with the actions of Trumps and Johnsons of the world and to evoke a reaction to the ‘legitimisation’ that they seek.  It is not to demonise men, or say that all men are the same, just that only men have male privilege and that means all men need to reflect on what that means to both them and to the women around them.

Under the Radar is different because it seeks to do this from the inside out, rather than the outside in.  It is not a critique of men as such, rather a pathological study of how culture and tradition have created male privilege, how this has developed learned micro-aggressions in male behaviour towards women, and how, if left unchecked, if taken to their logical conclusion, it will lead to prejudiced violence towards women.  Under the Radar looks to put culture and tradition under the microscope and attempt to expose the roots of male privilege engrained in the psyche of men.

Publicity image for Under the Radar

Publicity image for Under the Radar

My thanks to Jonathon for his time and interesting answers, and to Wan Yuan for facilitating and providing the images.

Under the Radar is on at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham from 12 – 16 November, playing at 7.15pm and running for 70 minutes. You can purchase tickets at https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/whats-on.html#event=32928170.

Terror at the Sweetshop – staged reading (The Other Palace Studio)

This will not be a full review as a staged reading cannot be evaluated in the same way as a full show, but I was interested enough to go along to The Other Palace this weekend to see the first performance of the musical Terror at the Sweet Shop, composed by Gavin Brock, written by Nichola Rivers, and directed by Andrew Keanes.

It was said to be a funny, edgy, family musical, based on the much-loved book by Lawrence Prestidge, and this was the first time the full libretto was to be performed. I was in!

The staging is simple – the cast (seven adults, five children) on chairs with script folders in hand, a handful of props and movements giving a sense of sets including the titular sweet shop, the homes of two of the children, the school, and so on. There’s a pianist (MD Rebecca Grant) and a speaker which amplifies the music.

Oscar (an impish and lively Jack Meredith) is being followed by a mysterious cat (a slinky Paul Keating, last seen in Little Miss Sunshine) who acts as a sometime narrator for the action. With a mother who is too wrapped up in yoga and well-being to notice him (Claire-Marie Hall), Oscar finds his fun and sugar fix every day at three at the sweet shop.

Together with his friends – Emma, Reece (Josiah Choto), Ishy (Etienne Ragoo, who has a fun song about being a nerd), and the flatulent Mikey – Oscar is determinded to solve the puzzle of where Mr McNulty from the shop has gone, and to get rid of the cackling witch Miss Primrose (Eva Polycarpou, note perfect, and in role contrast with the last time I saw her in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).

Cast and creatives of Terror at the Sweetshop
Cast and creatives of Terror at the Sweetshop. Image courtesy Facebook.

Shakil Hussain portrays both Ishy’s workaholic father and the Elvis-like headteacher, who wears leathers and reaches for his guitar in school breaks. He’s a lot of fun. Steve Furst is touching as Emma’s distracted dad, and there’s a nice duet for him and Claire-Marie Hall as Oscar’s ditzy mum which lifts the musical from a run of (admittently funny) fart jokes. To wrap up the adult cast, Reece’s lovey-dovey parents are played by Newton Matthews and Tanisha Spring, who do well in the dance numbers and get an in-joke towards the end.

Terror at the Sweet Shop proves to be a lot of fun, with the talented children in the cast easily matching the adults in the cast. All have their chance to shine: but I must mention Jasmine Sakyiama, who portrays the confusion of Emma, a child dealing with the loss of one parent and the crippling grief of another very well; and Aaron Gelkoff, who I saw earlier in the year in Caroline or Change, who hits the comedy head-on as Mikey. As for Meredith, his Oscar was the perfect pivot point for the story and the camaderie between him and the other young cast members was obvious.

I look forward to seeing where Brock, Keates and team take this show next. Given we saw the results of just a week of development, it was witty, sharp, complex and well-performed. A success, I’d say.