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.
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.
By the end of June, I had been seriously reviewing shows across London theatre for six months. I have already reflected on the process of the transition from being a theatre blogger as a hobby to being a professional theatre blogger in Six Months Later, but this post will look at the productions I attended between April and June of 2019.
You can find me across social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and on blogging platforms Bloglovin’ and Mix. I have started adding short reviews to Stagedoor with a view to doing an article on how it works as a theatre suggestion platform at a later date.
I now work with a number of PR companies to access a wide range of London theatre shows; and I am always open to smaller company/performer requests to review shows as well which may not have wider representation. My thanks go to everyone who has been in touch so far in 2019 and allowed me to view and comment on their work.
So let’s take a look at my theatre-going in the second quarter of 2019!
Show count: 9 | Plays: 5 | Musicals: 3 | Other: 1 | Venues: 9 (new venues: 3)
My month started with two press invites, both to theatres I had not visited before.
Bed Peace: the Battle of Yohn and Joko took place at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and focused on the 50th anniversary of the “bed-in for peace” stunt set up by musician John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono. The theatre is in the round, although part of the audience seating was used for staging in this production. A strong performance by Jung Sun den Hollander as Yoko was not enough to pull this show together, and I found it ultimately unsatisfying.
Much better was Kieran Hurley’s taut play Mouthpiece, which ran at the Soho Theatre, a three space venue buzzing with energy. It probably wouldn’t have been on my radar, but I found the script fascinating, hard-hitting and earthy, and Lorn Macdonald’s performance as Declan was one of the best I have seen this year. The play continues to gather attention and awards, and rightly so.
The second of five Arthur Miller plays to hit London this year was The Price – and although Brendan Coyle was indisposed on the day I saw the show, I admired the interplay between understudy Sion Lloyd as Victor and David Suchet as furniture dealer Solomon, even from way up in the Wyndham’s balcony.
Another new theatre to me was the Omnibus in Clapham, a former library building where I saw Philip Bretherton’s astonishing portrayal of politician Tony Benn in Tony’s Last Tape, a role he has now been playing for a number of years. It’s an excellent snippet of a man who often polarised opinion but always retained his single-mindedness. The Omnibus itself is small, but comfortable, and the bar boasts a resident cat.
April also gave me the opportunity to catch up with a show I had heard a lot about, but never seen: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I found it very inventive, strangely involving, and delightfully played. It is a show which definitely lives up to its reputation.
Over at the National, Tartuffe was reasonably OK, but I found the ending a little strange, and the character and plot did not really sit with 21st century concerns and technology. Denis O’Hare’s stateless manipulator, Kevin Doyle’s befuddled father, and Olivia Williams’s stoic mother, were all very good, and I enjoyed the farce of the second half.
Finally, a staged performance of Gilvert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (with John Wilson conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), an invitation to the concert version of the musical Broken Wings, and a trip back to the 70s at Wembley for Legends Live rounded off the month.
Show count: 17 | Plays: 8 | Musicals: 7 | Other: 2 | Venues: 15 (new venues: 7)
May began with a repeat visit to the musical revival of The King and I, this time on tour in Manchester with a change of cast. Still a sumptuous show and interesting to compare Jose Llana’s with that of Ken Watanabe last year in London.
Seven new venues this month saw me visit the Arcola, the Bunker, Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Peacock, Trafalgar Studios, The Yard, and Above the Stag (last visited eight years ago in its Victoria home.
In terms of musicals in the capital, I went to see the London Coliseum’s Man of La Mancha. It was overpriced, but I enjoyed the performances of Kelsey Grammer (last seen in Big Fish), Cassidy Janson (so marvellous as Carole King in Beautiful), and Nicholas Lyndhurst, and felt the lukewarm reviews were a little unkind.
The revival of Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola in Dalston was a lot of fun, notably the performances of Gary Wilmot as Granpa and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Mum. It benefitted from excellent use of the Arcola’s larger space, including a partially revolving stage.
An invitation to review at Above the Stag brought me to the vaudeville fun of Victorian cross-dressers in Fanny and Stella, which boasted an excellent and close-knit cast. Bawdy and tawdry, this was stirring stuff and the songs were excellent.
I caught up with Book of Mormon, having secured a discounted ticket, and I found it hilarious, filthy, and very entertaining. If yiu go with your mind open, the score is fabulous and you will leave the theatre smiling. I think this was a big surprise of the year for me as I really wasn’t sure I would like it.
Finally, my local theatre in Ealing hosted an amateur production of Bill Russell’s Side Show, in which GLOC’s talented company brought the magic of the circus to us in the story of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Plays in May included good revivals of Top Girls and Rutherford and Son (both at the National Theatre), the excellent one-woman show Funeral Flowers from Emma Dennis-Edwards at the Bunker (housed in a former underground car park next to the Menier), and a remarkable revival at Hackney Wick’s The Yard of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with a woman playing John Proctor.
Over in Stratford, Lenny Henry and Martina Laird provided engrossing performances in a tense revival of August Wilson’s King Hedley II, which brought gang culture, music, old promises, superstition, and more into the dark terraced residences in which young King Hedley faces old adversaries.
The Duke of York’s hosted a bleak version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, with a watery curtain call and a scene-stealing performance from the dependable Peter Wight opposite Tom Burke’s Rosmer. This play was the first in a run of London Ibsens in 2019.
Finally, the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the beautiful Whitehall Theatre) showed off both its spaces in Admissions, a slightly disappointing look at the politics of university admissions in the USA, and in the beautifully understated Vincent River.
I was happy to review Liza Pulman Sings Streisand on her Cadogan Hall stop, in which Barbra’s songs were celebrated but not impersonated. I was familiar with Pulman from her Fascinating Aida shows, but she is also an accomplished solo artist.
Finally, Beats on Pointe arrived at the ultra-modern Peacock Theatre in a new dance show from Masters of Choreography: with dancers tackling ballet, hip-hop and other styles, this show retained its energy throughout and used music, style and camp to full advantage.
Show count: 11 | Plays: 6| Musicals: 5 | Venues: 11 (new venues: 6)
June included two more Arthur Miller plays to complete the informal season of five – the Old Vic presented All My Sons in which Sally Field was excellent but Bill Pullman disappointed, and the Young Vic had a fresh new production of Death of a Salesman with a cast which was note-perfect.
Wilde reappeared with a clever run of adaptations of Pictures of Dorian Gray in which character genders were switched in a variety of perspectives. I saw C, with a female Dorian, and found it a dreamy and deviant piece of theatre. Victorian melodrama also appeared at the Finborough in After Dark, a play with songs which didn’t quite live up to pre-publicity.
It’s been a decade since Caissie Levy made an impact in the stage revival of Hair, which came over to the West End from Broadway. She played Sheila, idealistic and dedicated to peace. Levy refers to shows as “magical” rather a lot during her concert.
This is a show heavy with songs from musicals: Rent, Hair, Ghost, Waitress, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Miserables (not just Fantine’s signature song, but Bring Him Home too), and of course, Frozen (from which we are treated to not just Let it Go, but two new songs written for the stage version).
Away from shows there’s a couple of Carole King tracks, A Foggy Day (in London town), New York State of Mind, and The Nearness of You, showcasing Levy’s love of standards and smoky jazz.
For those who note such things, Levy starts the night in a leopard print dress slit to show a bit of leg, then returns in a short glittery number. She wears killer pencil heels throughout. She comes across as smart, funny, and warm, and is chatty between numbers, whether recounting tech disasters on Rent and Ghost, or discussing her three-year-old son’s birth playlist.
Ashley Day, a singer we haven’t seen perform in this country before, is Levy’s special guest: duetting on I Don’t Know How To Love Him and coming back alone for a powerhouse Iowa. I’d like to see and hear a lot more of this talented performer.
With Frozen due in town in about a year, I hope we get to see Caissie Levy transfer as Elsa. The new songs sound great, especially Monster, which gives the character more clarity. Levy’s band deserve a nod – notably musical director Matt Hinckley, who also adds vocal harmonies to a couple of tracks chosen from her debut album.
To be exact, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the fortieth anniversary of The Life of Brian, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Graham Chapman, and the eightieth anniversary of the birth of John Cleese.
The Flying Circus ran for 45 episodes on the BBC: 13 episodes in each of series 1-3, and 6 episodes in series 4 following the departure of Cleese. These were supplemented by two episodes for the German market: one made in German and subtitled in English, and one made in English.
Python also made films together. In 1971 their successful foray into the American market started with a compilation of sketches from the Circus, re-recorded for film and entitled And Now For Something Completely Different.
In 1974, back with Cleese, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released, utilising the story of King Arthur’s quest. In 1979 there was considerable controversy at the release of The Life of Brian, which opened with the Wise Men visiting the wrong stable to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Finally, in 1983, in a loosely-connected series of sketches, the team attempted to explain The Meaning of Life. Including expensive musical numbers, and teetering on the edge of bad taste throughout, this film remains their most polarising work.
My first experience of the Pythons came in 1987, when the BBC repeated series 2 of the Flying Circus. Not only were there men in dresses with screechy voices, wild and unusual animated links, and silly walks, but also songs, allusions to art and politics and much more. It wasn’t exactly laugh out loud hilarous, but it was something different.
Then we were shown The Life of Brian on VHS in an RE class at school, and I got my own copies of that and Holy Grail shortly afterwards, with And Now For Something … showing up on TV. The books The Big Red Bok and the Papperbok followed (still to this day in the wraparound poster that mentions masturbation).
The Pythons were very naughty boys. Educated, but juvenile. Of the establishment as Oxbridge graduates (except the American one), but kicking against convention. Taboos removed, they couldn’t care less. And that was most of the fun. They even made records like I’m So Worried (“about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow”).
They appeared live at the Hollywood Bowl. They had great roles for women in their work, including Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth, Rita Webb, and others. They taught us about history, philosophy, the space race, TV programme planners, literature, blancmanges, law, religion and the police.
At their twentieth anniversary in 1989, there was a tinge of sadness as Graham Chapman (my favourite of the six) died the day before, aged just 48. He’d taken part, briefly, in the BBC”s compilation of Circus sketches called Parrot Sketch Not Included. He remains a much-missed part of the jigsaw, and rightly received his own cheer at the One Down, Five To Go run of live shows at the O2 Arena in 2014.
Several books later, including Michael Palin’s perceptive diaries Monty Python at Work, and John Cleese’s memoir of his early years, So Anyway, we find ourselves at the half-century point. Now, as you may be aware, there were projects pre-Python like Incomplete History of Britain, HowtoIrritatePeople, AtLastthe1948Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set – the last two about to enjoy a brand new DVD release from BFI – so all the team were working on TV prior to 1969, but it was the Flying Circus that brought them together.
These days John Cleese (after three divorces still touring to pay alimony), Michael Palin (well-travelled, voice of The Clangers, recently knighted), Eric Idle (king of Spamalot, the stage musical of the Holy Grail, and Not the Messiah, the oratorio based on Brian), and Terry Gilliam (maverick film director) show little sign of slowly down in their twilight years.
Terry Jones (my second favourite Python, cheeky, funny, and Welsh) is sadly stricken with dementia, and out of public circulation. Sad though this is, I wish him well for the future and hope he can continue to enjoy his legacy.
Look out for the Python season at the BFI, the Network Blu Ray release of the remastered Flying Circus, film screenings and more, and do pick up the Radio Times special celebratory magazine, Monty Python at 50.
Enjoy again the dead parrot, cheese shop, Spanish inquisition, singing policemen, lumberjacks, the new gas cooker, the dirty fork, the pepperpots, lemon curry, the bishop, the Piranha brothers, the Hell’s Grannies, edible art, the Bruces, Reg Pither, the Wood Party, the vocational guidance and marriage guidance counsellors, Dim of the Yard, Teddy Salad, sleazy clubs, parts of the body, the other Cole Porter, the Oscar Wilde skit, the Amazing Kargol and Janet, Wuthering Heights in Semaphore, the man with three buttocks, Two Sheds Jackson, Dennis Moore, molluscs and much, much more.
Happy anniversary, you bad boys. All photos courtesy of Monty Python’s official website.
Cora Bissett was once a teenage rocker, lead singer at seventeen in a band called Darlingheart, the pride of Fife. She’s reminded of this, and reminds us, while cradling a box she found while clearing out her parents’ loft after her dad’s death from dementia. She’s wearing a Pixies TV shirt.
That’s the premise of this play with music, What Girls Are Made Of. It is a familiar story in many ways: Bissett discovers the music and image of Patti Smith and wants nothing more than to be like her, answering a local newspaper call to join a band with two older chaps, Clark and Cameron, and with a younger schoolmate, Cathryn, on drums.
Darlingheart are edgy, hungry and naive. With a dodgy record deal involving multiple blank cheques, a succession of support gigs (Sultans of Ping FC, Radiohead, Blur), a lot of alcohol, and a sleazy manager, Cora and her cohorts are living the dream until the NME decide otherwise and give their album a damning review.
In parallel with Darlingheart’s rise and fall, we hear about Cora’s parents: her gentle dad from the Irish countryside with his huge hands, eventually lost to dementia; her strong Scots mum like a “Shetland pony facing the wind”, pragmatic even in the face of MS in middle age.
This mix of the professional, the personal, and the parodies of industry insiders and rock icons makes this show something special. Bissett herself is centre stage as writer, performer, and muse, showcasing a powerful singing voice and a dreamy, lyrical way with words, but her band of actor-musicians (Emma Smith, Harry Ward, Simon Donaldson) add colour with all the other characters.
Ultimately, this is less about Cora the teenage rocker than Cora growing into the woman she is today; informed by the diaries she kept in great detail year on year, supported by the dream that still allows her to rock out, Smith-like, before her audience, but wiser and reflective, a settled, creative, mother.
There will be aspects of What Girls Are Made Of which speak to every woman: whether following a dream, dealing with a bully, standing up for your rights (an anecdote about some icky publicity photos is prescient in the #MeToo era), facing up to a bad decision (I’d have liked to hear more about why Cora and Cameron didn’t speak for 25 years), watching your parents succumb to weakness, and finding yout own contentment.
By Royal Command, we are in the palatial, ghostly, and distressed surroundings of the historic Wilton’s Music Hall, to spend just short of 80 minutes in the company of HM The Queen.
The Crown Dual was one of the hits of the Edinburgh Fringe, taking careful aim at the Netflix series The Crown as well as the notion of monarchy. It is silly, satirical, and just plain funny.
In the persons of Rosie Holt and Brendan Murphy we meet not just Liz and Phil, but also a stuttering George VI (“you should marry a naval officer or asshole … a soldier”), an ancient cigar-puffing Churchill, a horny fur-clad Princess Margaret (with Top Gun-like Peter Townsend), a large-eared young Charles (“I just can’t wait to be king” / “you’ll be waiting a bloody long time!”), and a bovver-boy Armstrong Jones.
There’s a running gag about the Duke of Edinburgh’s frustrations at having no role, a small dig at his driving, and an encounter with a huge penguin. There’s audience participation (which I was assured by one lady was genuine and not done by planted performers). There’s several digs at Netflix, inventive use of a phone, and a lot of stage smog.
The humour is of the slightly joshing kind rather than downright cruel, and Holt’s Queen retains her what-the-heck singlemindedness right to the moment she gains the coveted baubles and Crown of state.
It could perhaps have been closer to traditional knockabout farce, but the quick changes, goofy script (at one point a Merlin-like tutor appears for a montage of Queendom), and likeable performers keep this going.
The Crown Dual has its final performances at Wilton’s Music Hall today, 14 September.
Florian Zeller’s third play in his family trilogy, after The Father and TheMother, is again translated by Christopher Hampton, and brought to the London stage.
Pierre has left his former wife, Anne, and their teenage son, Nicolas, to set up a new home amd family with Sofia and their baby, Sacha. Nicolas is in a period of crisis – before the start of the play proper, he is furiously writing his thoughts in black marker on the bright white walls which encompass the set.
As Anne can no longer cope with her son’s silence and truancy, he comes to live with dad but remains isolated, capable for very brief moments of happiness, but also crushing resentment of the close-knit family of three which has been ripped apart.
The staging by director Michael Longhurst and designer Lizzie Clachan allows for ghostly presences, trashed surroundings, overlapping scenes, and unstated elegance. The white-walled space acts as a palatial living space, a hospital waiting room, and a cluttered office. It also acts as the prison within Nicolas’s mind as he struggles just to live.
John Light, Laurie Kynaston, Amanda Abbington and Amaka Okafor are all good in their roles, although Abbington is a little underused and Okafor’s Sofia remains slightly unsympathetic to the end. I disliked the attempt at a twist ending, which felt tacked on and pushed the play just beyond an effective stopping point.
There are excellent scenes: Pierre’s impotent fear at his son’s attempts to hide his physical and emotional pain; the “Happy” dance sequence; the icy coolness of the first scene between Pierre and Anne set against their closeness in the hospital; the guarded conversation between Sofia and Nicolas as she gets herself ready for a night out.
Small moments within a time of depression and crisis, where Nicolas’s decline is missed by everyone around him; even, perhaps, the psychiatrist who hides behind the logic of medicine.
The Son is not quite as successful as The Father or last year’s The Height of the Storm. It has a certain emotional punch, and Zeller’s usual economical tautness of script, but for me something disconnected. Rather than feeling I was in the room with these characters, it was more outside a pane of glass, looking in from some remote spot.
By the end, it seems that this family will never fit together in quite the same way, unlike the toy trucks which are left side by side, incongruous to a grown-up space.
The Son originally played at the Kiln Theatre, and opened at the Duke of York’s on 24 August 2019 for a limited season. Photo credits Marc Brenner.
This is a musical, but not one you might expect. Taking place in the disturbed mind of Sergei Rachmaninov during a period of writer’s block, it take the form of a series of brief encounters: appropriate when you consider the use of his No. 2 concerto in the classic 1940s film of that name.
Preludes harks back to the piano piece which made the composer’s name when he was just nineteen; when the whole world seemed open to him. But fame does not bring deity or immortality, as we will see as we follow the plot of this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frustrating, show.
The music, which uses original pieces by Dave Malloy alongside, and meshed with, the works of the great Russian composer, is largely electronic and sometimes a chore to experience. The set (designed by Rebecca Brower) resembles a raised stage, but some of the gleaming black floor tiles have been ripped or clawed up, adding to the sense of unease.
The lighting (by Christopher Nairne) only really comes into its own during act two, when Rachmaninov crouches at the base of the stairs in the audience as his opera star dons biker leathers and a blood-red cloak to evoke a heavy metal influenced devil, accompanied by flashes, strobes and washes of red light. Another striking piece of lighting comes later when a drunken conductor reduces a sublime symphony to ridicule.
Georgia Louise, Rebecca Caine, Tom Noyes, Steven Serlin, Norton James and Keith Ramsay display beautiful singing voices and harmonies when the electronics are stripped back and moments of lucidity take place: at a marriage, during a period of hypnosis. I longed for more of this.
With the topic of mental health in the arts remaining a very current concern, the time is certainly right for Preludes to take to the UK stage, and it is a brave and non-confirming production; however I found the staring and physical ticks of Ramsay’s Rachmaninov did not always convince, nor the use of modern references and turns of phrase. The use of a pianist ‘double’ for the composer’s troubled psyche was effective, and sometimes moving.
Malloy and director Alex Sutton bring quick sketches of the characters of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas to the piece, as these “great men” interact with the fractured mind of a composer who enumerates each hour he is awake and refrains from the act of creating his next work.
Preludes is certainly not for everyone, but with on-stage sound technicians, a dreamlike state, and more than a sprinkle of chutzpah, it has moments of true emotional power, and does its best to subvert an audience’s expectation of what musical theatre could and should be.
I viewed a preview performance of Preludes, which continues at the Southwark Playhouse. Rehearsal photo by Scott Rylander.
Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.
These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.
Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).
In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).
Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is struggling, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).
Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.
There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.
I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.
As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.
The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.
By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).
From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.
Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.
Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.
Now back in London after a celebrated run at the Edinburgh Fringe, this Nigerian family drama by Chigozie Obioma (adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan) benefits from a deceptively simple set from Amelia Jane Hankin, exquisite lighting designed by Amy Mae, a muted soundscape from Adam McCready, and tight direction from Jack McNamara.
Actors David Alade and Valentine Olokuga play every role: Dad and Mother, four sons, a corrupt policeman, a nosy villager, a madman. It is unclear at first where we are, and why, and whether the story being recounted is true.
Displaying a heightened emotional state throughout which can turn from funny to chilling on a turn of a head, the cast tell the story of the fishermen with a great deal of physical engagement. These characters push, shove, punch, fight, and ultimately make a decision which is catastrophic for the whole family.
The script is economical, and the depiction of the typical Nigerian mother is funny; the scene with the madman, slobbering and prophesising, is horrific; the grieving dad discovering a secret is heartbreaking.
With a set simply made of scaffolding poles and sandbags, and the intimacy of the Trafalgar’s smallest studio bringing the action dangerously close to the front row, The Fishermen is intensely claustrophobic from the first scene, the poles initially forming a barrier between audience and story.
We were given badges at press night which depicted a fishing rod and thr line “you’re all I need”: a reference to both a song and a desecration, both strongly portrayed. This is not a frivolous play, but rather one which teases out familial loyalties through blood, sweat, vomit, spit and water.
The Fishermen is produced by New Perspectives and runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 12 October. Photo credits Robert Day.
Juliet Stevenson stars in this “loose adaptation” of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi. The time is the present, in the “digital age”. The place is a private institute specialising in the study of dementia. The hospital director, the professor, is still a Jew, but now a woman, too.
Robert Icke not only plays with the text of this ethical drama, but with audience perceptions as well: gender and race-blind casting means we are seeing one reality but being told of another: the priest who is excluded from his dying patient is black, but played by a white actor; the junior doctor is a man, but played by a woman.
The Doctor is a clever and intense piece of drama which considers issues of medical ethics, religious observance and tolerance, gender, sexuality, unconscious bias, and the power of language.
Realities are slowly revealed as the play progresses, and the social media hysteria builds, all from one action of a medical practitioner believing she should act in the best interests of her patient (a teenage girl brought in with sepsis, a child of Catholic parents).
There are perhaps a tad too many reveals for an audience to process, but a scene where the Doctor’s house is terrorised is well done, the freeze framing of two acts of violence is effective, and the moment she betrays her young friend in a television debate is shocking.
Hildegard Bechtler has created a simple set of a long table and benches which occasionally revolves as arguments are thrashed out. This serves as a meeting room in the hospital, the Doctor’s kitchen, a TV studio.
Above the set is suspended a space for drummer Hannah Ledwidge, who provides percussive accompaniment throughout, sometimes between scenes, sometimes underscoring snatches of dialogue.
There are moments of humour within the intense scenes, scenes which gain in their emotional impact as the Doctor loses her status, power, influence and pride. As she is told in act two, “What is a leader without followers? Just an old woman.”
The play feels very current in its new form with discussions of antisemitism, politics, gender fluidity, abortion, political correctness, and the faults which exist on all sides – whether white privilege or not.
It is interesting that though a black woman (a touching performance from Joy Richardson) plays the Doctor’s partner, Charlie, their gender or race is never discussed.
Aside from Stevenson’s outstanding depiction of a woman slowly slipping down a precipice, good performances come from Naomi Wirther as the Doctor’s repellent male and Christian deputy, Paul Higgins as the priest, and Ria Zmitrowicz as the teenager who sees her neighbour’s kitchen as a safe space.
The Doctor continues at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, but is sold out for the rest of its run. Although it runs at close to three hours, it doesn’t waste a moment.
I was invited to review the debut show by Kyra Jessica Willis, The Feeling, which promised to be a bold, modern, dark comedy musical.
The songs take the form of recognisable pop hits from the likes of REM, Roxette, Demi Lovato, Radiohead, Savage Garden, Counting Crows, Avril Lavigne, Chris Isaak and Fun. They generally work well in the fabric of the show, which provides a look at a group of friends sharing their highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and paranoia.
Willis herself plays Jessie, first seeming to be just a bitchy woman who plays with people, but developing into someone who needs hugs and happiness. Her close friend (and possibly former lover) is coffee-shop owner and peacemaker Mel, played with a touch of wisdom by Halie Darling, and she is in turn taking shaky steps into romance with geeky Jamie (a sweet George C Francis, who also directs the show).
Jessie and Edie (Chloe Hazel, psychologically shaky and with a heart of stone) have an odd relationship which seems to have more to it than their shared ex-partner, Kasey (PJ Tomlinson). Constantly needling each other and seeking attention, their animosity feels very immature and disturbing.
Then there’s Lexie (a delicate Pippa Lea, whose fractured vocals give realism to her situation), who falls for nice guy Archie (Sean Erwood, only in his teens but providing a strong and sensible glue within the group): he’s faced and got through a crisis which may come back to haunt him.
Finally, there’s Holt (Chris Barton), in love with Jessie and on the periphery of the group. This set of people navigating the perils of growing up meet each day in the coffee bar, talking about the small things in life, and sometimes the big things too.
A change in lighting for most of the songs put me in mind of Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, where the musical interludes provide hidden thoughts which remain unspoken. Here, too, we get duets between Jessie/Edie, Jessie/Lexie and solos for Lexie, Edie, Jamie, Jessie which gives us that insight that isn’t in Willis’s dialogue.
The Feeling starts with a film projection of some of the backstory while Kasey sings the opening song, “Mr Jones”. After that we’re straight into what seems to be Friends territory but with extra tension, which escalates with Jessie and Edie’s refusal to speak and Lexie mourning her recent break-up.
As a play, I found some of the dialogue needed to be helped along by the songs, and some aspects came from nowhere (why are Lexie and Hoot siblings when they have no interaction). In the main, though, there is enough here to make you care and the use of “We Are Home” as the final song was particularly effective.
The characters have definitite potential and I felt the warm friendship between Jessie and Mel, the caring core of a Kasey who knew he’d made mistakes, the nervous anxiety of Jamie who doesn’t know how to behave around women, and the quiet desperation of a lonely Lexie.
The songs are well-chosen and beautifully accompanied by MD Connagh Tonkinson, who strips them back to their strong lyrical core. They are generally sung with a sense of realism and emotion, which I enjoyed, even if a handful of the choices have a personal resonance to me that briefly jolted me away from the drama.
Ultimately, The Feeling is an accomplished show from a young company which has a lot of potential: it isn’t perfect, but it shows a lot of heart and a willingness to engage with difficult and complex subjects without resorting to hysterics.
The Feeling has two more performances on 7 September, at 3pm and 8pm. It runs at around 2 hr 20 minutes including an interval.
Closing off the venue’s Queer Season is this debut play from James Corley, set in 1998/9. The title refers to the tower block in Chelsea where most of the action is situated, but with a running thread of terrorism it inevitably takes on another meaning.
Ben is a nervous, stammering young man of nineteen. He loves his video games but is voluntarily in the house almost all the time due to his anxiety. Mum Viv has made them move several times, and it is clear they belong in another part of town. A lack of money, opportunities, and sex has left her frustrated and her world revolves around her son.
Next door, renting from the council, are refugees from Kosovo, ultra-masculine artist dad Ylli and confident gay son Besnik. Their flat is bigger, they pay a lot less than their neighbours. Their TV constantly flickers with scenes of conflict from their home country.
Bonding over their shared interest in Super Mario, Ben and Besnik become ever closer in the tightly-furnished living room which doubles as a second sleeping space, where Ben dreans of escaping to Malaysia to his absent dad, and downloads expensive gay porn on the internet.
World’s End is about the shadows of art, about finding yourself, about the clear perils of growing up, whether fighting for your nation’s freedom, or something much closer to home. It is about light and dark, from an early scene where Ylli tells Viv a true artist captures light and colour, to a final scene of a rooftop eclipse. Ultimately it is about love in all its forms.
The performances are generally good: Tom Milligan as Ben holds the attention in both quiet moments and moments of intense aggrevation; Patricia Potter manages a difficult character arc of peaks and troughs; Mirlind Bega, in his debut role as Benik, shows a determined sense of spirit, the one his father recognises as “a different kind of fighter”; and Nikolaos Brahimllari, the lonely widower frustrated by both the constraints of Serbian attacks and the freedom of their new home, teases out the portrait painter beneath the soldier.
In the small space of the King’s Head Theatre, itself in need of a bit of care and TLC, we feel firmly in the part of London which never sees money. The lift has been broken for a year, the gas heating guzzles coins in the meter.
I would have liked something to anchor us more to 1999 – a flash of a song, perhaps, or a mention of the Millennium Bug. The Zelda game and Benik’s new Converse trainers place us there, and the Billy Bass singing fish, but the set and sound design might have done a bit more.
World’s End continues at the King’s Head to the 21 September. It is directed by Harry Mackrill and designed by Rachel Stone. Production photos by Bettina Adela.
The National Theatre’s celebrated 2016 production of JM Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who never grew up was set to be a triumphant opening show for the newest theatre in White City, the cavernous Troubadour.
One of a pair of theatres from the company – the other is in Wembley – the theatre has two performance spaces, a roomy foyer and bar, and lots of loos. It is also a very large space to fill effectively for a three-month run, and so, sadly, Peter Pan departed last night after just a few weeks.
I saw it on its penultimate night. The story is on the surface a simple one, with bored children off on an adventure with mermaids, pirates, and a disparate group of “lost boys”.
More complex themes involve puberty, first love, mother-son fixation and sadism (cruelty to teddies), and these have been teased out in a production which I felt was more “junior Kneehigh” than “sentimental Disney”.
The flexible space allows both Peter and Wendy to fly over the audience’s heads, while on stage, a pair of hardworking crew make sure the on-stage acrobatics are handled safely.
The lighting, too, is effective, and the small band handle the music for the occasional song (notably from Captain Hook, this time doubled with the part of Mrs Darling to reinforce the “mother” theme).
Aspects that didn’t work so well: a very lengthy second half and a saggy introduction; an irritating Tinkerbell who almost made me loathe to clap in her big revival scene; and an underuse of the character of Tigerlily.
In the cast I particularly liked Daisy Maywood’s slowly maturing Wendy, Kelly Price’s metal-toothed Hook, Mark Kane’s affectionate Tootles (he also briefly appears as the Darlings’ faithful dog, Nana), and David Langham’s slimy Smee. Peter himself, in the person of John Pfumojena, has just the touch of arrogance, fake bravado, and little boy lost to make the story work.
Sally Cookson, who also directed the marvellous 2015 Jane Eyre which I saw at the National, pulls everything together including movement, fights and essential set pieces like the crocodile, but I felt the songs were lost in such a vast space and the lyrics were often indecipherable.
Peter Pan ran from 22 July to 1 September 2019 at the Troubadour White City. Photo credits by Steve Tanner.
The girl-power film which shone in the 80s now comes to the stage in the form of Dolly Parton’s frothy musical 9 to 5 at the Savoy Theatre. Originally due to close this month, it has since been extended, partially recast, and will run in tandem with a UK tour. Now seemed a good time for a visit.
The clock we see at the top of the show becomes a video screen on which the Queen of Country starts up the title song and then introduces the main female characters: Violet (a steely Caroline Sheen), Doralee (bubbly Dollyish Natalie McQueen), and Judy (stunning debut from Amber Davies, who leaves the show today).
They all work in the same office, and it is Judy’s first day in her first job after her husband Dick (leading to many double entendre jokes around his name) leaves her for a teenage bit of fluff.
The office is run as a soulless automation by leering and sexist boss Franklin Hart Jr (a scene-stealing Brian Conley), supported by memo-crazed and sex-starved company spy Ros (Bonnie Langford). Together these supply a huge amount of comic relief as she literally lets her hair down and he gets his comeuppence.
9 to 5 is a fun show which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and to be honest, even if they are performed well, doesn’t have particularly memorable songs. What it does have is a way for a woman to get the upper hand which still draws applause today, and an accomplished use of the Savoy’s deep and high stage.
The dance sequences by Lisa Stevens are excellent, particularly in the One of the Boys number, and there’s a rooftop scene which will bring a smile to your face. And, of course, Dolly’s back in virtual form by the end to tell us how the characters fared in later life.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun, the musical may not leave with you humming the songs, but you will have a smile on your face. I wouldn’t recommend taking the kids along, though.
A new production of the fifty-year old musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has been running through the summer at the Palladium – starring recent graduate Jac Yarrow i the lead role, with Sheridan Smith and Jason Donovan the star names to pull in the punters.
This week Smith is ill with laryngitis, and Vanessa Fisher appears as the Narrator instead. The role has been substantially expanded to include Jacob, Potiphar’s wife, and more: for me, Fisher’s sunny personality and aptitude for clowning made this palatable.
The score remains hummable and pleasant, with the occasional (but familiar) clunky rhyme. With songs which act as parodies of genres such as country, the boulevard, calypso and Elvis, the simple Bible story moves along quickly. Audiences have little chance to be bored at a 100 minute show, although I still find the closing Megamix unneccessary and a bit dated.
Yarrow is quite a find. Josephs in the past (including Gary Bond, Darren Day, Jason Donovan, Stephen Gately, Philip Schofield, Donny Osmond and Lee Mead) have strived to make the part their own, and any new Joseph donning the coloured coat has large shoes to fill. Yarrow not only has the voice but also the personality to win us over. I predict a long and successful future for him.
I watched the show from a restricted view seat in the Royal Box, so the set design couldn’t be fully appreciated; however, there are no rising platforms out into the audience and no expanding train for Joseph’s coat. The backdrops are fairly simple and the action is largely centre stage.
As Joseph began as a show for children, it is only right that a young cast play a large part in the musical. Here, it isn’t just backup on Joseph’s two big solo numbers, but also we have children playing Potiphar, Benjamin, the Butler and Baker, the goat, and other parts, which works well.
Jason Donovan’s casting has an air of the stunt about it, but the Pharoah is equivalent to Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, a showy bit of fun with a bit of Vegas glamour. So Donovan curls his lip, wiggles his hips, and wears a cape embroided with “The King”. I’ve seen better Pharoahs who caught the Elvis vibe, but the lady who shouted out “I love you, Jason” clearly disagreed!
With strong direction from Laurence Connor, excellent choreography by Joann M Hunter, and some good supporting bits (brother Simeon, played by Michael Pickering, sings well in Those Canaan Days), this is a definite hit revival – and I can’t forget John Rigby and his orchestra, who are fabulous.
Joseph continues at the London Palladium. I wouldn’t recommend my seat as the restriction is frustrating, but there are a few pricing options out there for the remainder of the run, and there are whispers of a 2020 return.
As part of the retrospective of Jonathan Harvey’s work at Above the Stag, we have this fine revival of the musical he wrote with “Britain’s most successful musical duo”, The Pet Shop Boys. It’s directed by Steven Dexter and choreographed by Ashley Luke Lloyd.
Closer to Heaven is set in the dark and drug-filled spaces of gay clubland, where scantily clad dancers strut their stuff around self-proclaimed momma, the ageing pop art icon Billie Trix (scene-stealing Adele Anderson).
Into this world comes Straight Dave (Blake Patrick Anderson), first as a barman, then on the dance floor. When that isn’t enough he moves from one predator to another, from alcoholic club manager (Christopher Howell) to red-eyed horny record promoter (Ian Hallard).
The set (beautifully designed by David Shields and lit by Jack Weir) is all dancing coloured lights, mirrors and projections to set the scene: apart from one brief moment, it is always inside, in the depths of night, where lines of coke are snorted, floor shows are rehearsed, sexual favours traded, or confidences shared.
Straight Dave’s life is complicated when love shows up in the forms of a girl (Shell, streetwise daughter of her gay dad, played by a feisty Maddy Banks) and a boy (drug dealer Mile End Lee, doing his best to keep sex as a transaction for money, played with sensitivity and street-cred by Mikulas Urbank).
In the cacophony of clubland and the plastic of manufactured pop, there is a tender love story, albeit one tinged with tragedy. This is the world of the young and beautiful, chasing their dreams in hotpants and illuminated halos.
Billie Trix, Bob Saunders and Vic Christian, as the older characters in the seedy space The Pet Shop Boys clearly know so well, have their own crosses to bear, and their own routes to survival.
Surrounding herself with images of her youth, Billie recalls “loving many genders” in a Dietrich accent; Saunders paws at young boys with an eager fist full of money and nothing behind his dead eyed bravado; Christian sucks the lifeblood from his own addiction (Vampires).
The songs are a mix of club anthems, ballads, and in one section, a mini-musical about the mad emperor Caligula. Although you hear hints of PSB hits like Rent here and there in the opening bars, Closer to Heaven is full of original, catchy tunes and knowing dance routines.
The music and songs lift a plot that is part Cabaret with all its decadence, part Romeo and Juliet (and Romeo), and all the performances are fine, with Anderson particularly outstanding as the ageing diva who reveals herself to be the wise old woman who nurtures everyone around her (Friendly Fire).
Closer to Heaven closes on 31 August 2019. Photos by Gaz at PBG Studios.
73 questions was started by Vogue in 2014, offering their readers a look into the lives of celebrities in a fun and easy way. Since then, bloggers all over the globe have taken this question and answer game and put their own spin on it. This has become the Vogue Parody – 73 Questions.
I was nominated to join the game by Becky at Musical Theatre Lives In Me. Becky writes reviews, news, articles and interviews on her blog, which is well worth a look.
On with the questions!
Vogue Parody – Questions 1-10
What’s your usual Starbucks order?
I admit I am more of a Costa girl but I do like a hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows as a treat, or a mocha if I’m feeling virtuous.
What does your work station look like?
Comfy. I like my sofa, my laptop or phone, and something on in the background as white noise, usually Judge Judy or Four in a Bed. The room itself is a bit chaotic, with books, programmes, magazines, CDs, DVDs and remote controls all around. Out of my window I can see the back courtyard which has the occasional visiting wood pigeon or squirrel.
Cheese and onion pie. It’s been passed down through the family and now I make my own recipe. The secret is not too much Worcester sauce and ready rolled pastry. If I crave something sweet then I make an excellent apple and carrot cake.
I always go back to Thomas Hardy. Every novel, every poem, every short story.
What do you think of open relationships?
Every person is different, and I am in no position to judge, but open relationships are not for me.
What is your favourite video game?
I don’t really play them. I occasionally play Criminal Case, but games like that are a bore.
Guilty pleasure treat?
A Wispa. I joined the campaign to bring them back, and it was a great day when they did.
Gone With The Wind (1939).
Watership Down by Richard Adams. I read it once a year.
Twitter or Instagram?
Both, but I have been on Twitter a lot longer and all human life is there.
Laptop or desktop?
Laptop, although mine has seen better days and the hinges are broken.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
From a former co-worker, “you don’t always have to stay on the wheel”.
What project are you working on right now?
Other than the blog, I am writing a chapter for a book about memories of British television shows. Rewatching episodes and researching around them is fun. As far as the blog is concerned, growing my following is my number #1 priority.
Did you get good grades in school?
I was in the first year to sit GCSEs which meant year one we studied for ‘O’ level then year two we changed focus. Given all the upheaval my grades were fine, ditto with my ‘A’ levels two years later.
Absolutely not. I even got kicked out of PE classes in school for being totally useless at just about everything.
Do you have a degree?
Yes, in information management.
British. Family are a mix of Yorkshire bandsmen, Lancashire dockers, Black Country miners, and Irish emigres.
What is your favourite kind of blog post?
One which shows some of the blogger’s personality.
What do you like to collect?
Theatre programmes (since 1987). DVDs and books. Cuddly toys.
Describe yourself in three words?
Shy, serious, sensitive.
If you were a rapper, what would your stage name be?
Who was the last person you DM’d?
What’s on the top of your wish list right now?
Pretty Woman, if and when it is confirmed.
Slytherin. It seems the most creative, plus it is headed up by Snape.
How many tattoos do you have?
A big fat zero.
What are you most thankful for so far this year?
That my mental health is slowly improving, after a frankly awful 2018.
What’s the best thing that’s happened so far this month?
I went to the Falsettos press event. It was great, and I felt like a genuine member of the theatre blogging scene.
What’s the best thing that has happened to you today?
I reactivated my Goodreads account, which will allow me to start writing seriously about my huge book collection.
Autumn (or Fall, if you’re reading this in America). It isn’t too cold, the colours are beautiful, and it seems a peaceful time of year.
What’s the best thing ever?
The song MacArthur Park, by Richard Harris.
I like Christmas.
Which fictional character do you relate to most?
Fiver in Watership Down.
Do you like surprises?
No. I hate being the centre of attention.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve ever had?
Finding out that the career I had put all my energies into for more than half of my lifetime was not what I wanted any more. It took a crisis in my health for me to realise it.
Which surprise made you cry?
When I first started dating my husband, he bought me a silver necklace with a teeny diamond in it. It was the most beautiful gesture.
What’s the best surprise you’ve ever given?
My mum’s 40th birthday party was fun. We all planned it, there was a council road sign with a slogan on it, balloons, all the family was there (a rare occurrence), and we nearly lost the cat in all the excitement!
Do you like muffins?
A double-edged question for someone born in the North of England! Do you mean the muffins which are cakes (in which case, yes, especially blueberry), or do you mean proper bread muffins with the whole in the top (in which case, definitely yes)?
Do you cook often?
I have a limited range but I can rustle up a decent casserole or pasta bake.
Vogue Parody – Questions 41-50
What’s your favourite dessert?
Blackcurrant jelly with evaporated milk. Lots of memories of home and childhood.
Is there a dessert that you don’t like?
I used to really dislike pears but my taste changed, so no.
Cake or pie?
What’s your least favourite food?
Anything too spicy. I don’t want eating a meal to involve pain.
What’s your favourite condiment?
It’s 4am on a random Saturday, what are you doing?
If you could do a college class, what would it be called?
1930s musicals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Best animated film?
Dumbo (1941). An hour of perfection. It makes me laugh, the lead elephant is cute, the songs are great, and there’s a scene with his mum that always makes me cry.
What has a guy ever said or done to impress you?
When someone is honest enough to open themselves up completely, good and bad, that impresses me. And it has happened now and then.
Best thing to do on a first date?
Don’t try too hard to be something you’re not.
Worst thing to do on a first date?
Anything involving a bodily function.
What’s the best pick-up line?
None of them. They’re too cheesy.
Best comic book character?
I always liked Minnie the Minx. Girl power.
Name three things that are always in your handbag.
Phone, hairbrush, keys (with a keyring my first boyfriend gave to me more than thirty years ago).
If you could play a historical figure in a movie, who would it be?
Annie Kenney, a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement and a mill girl from my home town.
Kittens or puppies?
Kittens all the way.
Favourite sushi roll?
I have never eaten sushi.
What lipstick do you use?
On very rare occasions, “Pink in the Afternoon”.
What foundation do you use?
It’s a Revlon beige one, but I don’t wear it all the time.
Blow dry or air dry?
Blow dry all the time, although I probably wash my hair far too much.
If you could sing a duet with anybody, who would you choose?
I’d go right back to the dawn of musical films and pick Nelson Eddy, who had a voice like honey mixed with chocolate. Ideally of course I would have a soprano voice like Jeanette Macdonald to make it work.
If your life was a song, what would the title be?
I Am What I Am (from La Cage Aux Folles).
What’s your favourite animal?
Squirrel. They are clever, cute, funny, athletic and flat out amazing.
Ernest Shepard’s work for Winnie the Pooh.
Questions 71 to 73
Person you would love to have coffee with?
Flo Ziegfeld. I would want to know more about how he assembled the Follies.
Country you would most like to visit?
Probably New Zealand and hobbit-land.
Best way to decompress?
I watch silly videos on YouTube.
I challenge any of my blogging readers who haven’t already done this to have a go!
A Saturday afternoon invite to watch a thriller above one of London’s oldest pubs (there’s been an alehouse on this site in Islington for 600 years)? I don’t mind if I do.
Skin in the Game is the first full-length play from Paul Westwood, who also performs the lead role of ineffectual gambler Jamie. It is a depiction of the consequences of addiction, the politics of family relationships, and the blackly comic menace of working-class contemporary Birmingham.
Jamie’s siblings Danny (a chilling and unhinged turn from Charlie Allen that only briefly shows a chink of humanity) and Michelle (a tired and emotional, but pragmatic Kathryn O’Reilly) have their own crosses to bear, involved in petty crime and drugs.
All three have come together in their dad’s grimy flat to sign off the sale which will allow him to stay in a care home, but slowly it transpires that there’s a mystery about what happened to Dad.
Westwood’s Jamie is an essay in the desperation of addiction and the all-consuming need for money: a sweaty, tense and hollow-eyed shadow of a man. He has an easy and warm relationship with his sister, but is clearly scared of his unpredictable brother.
It is possible that Skin in the Game misses some of the earthy humour that characterises those in dire straits in the Midlands, but there is a definite inky blackness in the revelation of what happened to Dad (played by David Whitworth, who presents his character as a manipulative old man with a steely core).
At the performance I attended the Old Red Lion’s famed air conditioning was not working, which made the play feel even more claustrophobic and intense. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near this family, who keep secrets from each other, threaten to expose damaging information, and apportion blame.
Clemmie Reynolds directs with an eye on the realism of a family in a lifetime of crisis, which is underlined by Emily Megson’s deceptively simple set of chair, sofa, record player, and peeling wallpaper.
You can almost smell the damp in the flat in which Dad had sat year after year listening to Engelbert and Tom, despising even the child who did most to care for him. There’s no hint of Mum – not a memory, a photograph.
Skin in the Game is a clever thriller that isn’t afraid to raise awkward questions or make audiences uncomfortable. If you like gritty plays then I’d recommend you head to Islington to take a look before the show closes on 14 September 2019.
Please note that A Very Expensive Poison is currently in previews.
Lucy Prebble’s play Enron was one of my favourite stage shows of the first decade of the 21st century, a vibrant and original take on a period of financial turmoil. Now she has turned her attention to the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006 London, most likely on the orders of the Russian state in which he had served as a “detective”.
A Very Expensive Poison, inspired by the book of the same name by Luke Harding has become a very expensive production, with a set based on a lightbox structure which contracts, expands, and changes scene and focus. It has also become a very long show, currently running at around three hours, which not only milks every single cliche around the Western view of the Russians, but also slows the pace of the plot right down to a painful crawl.
A strong opening scene, with Marina Litvinetko meeting her lawyer and finding the death of her husband is not being properly investigated, gives way quickly to a farcical approach which seems to lose sight of the fact that a man was left to die, horribly, because of a government need to eliminate him.
Some scenes are similar to those you would see in a sitcom, with the father of Litvinenko owing more to Alf Garnett than Stalin (and even Alexander himself having more than a touch of Rodney in Only Fools and Horses). There are oversized puppets of the Spitting Image type, and although Vladimir Putin/”The President” appears, he is sadly reduced to a personality that lacks real menace.
With a judicious trim in length, and a switch in focus to really develop the investigation into Litvinenko’s previous life in Russia and the events which led to his murder, this would be a solid thriller; or perhaps if Prebble wished to take this wholly down the black comedy route she should think carefully about the impact of the serious speeches about Chechnyan conflict and the Moscow theatre massacre in a scenario played for laughs.
I found A Very Expensive Poison a confused production which doesn’t quite know how to present itself. There are some interesting performances – MyAnna Buring catches the quiet desperation of the wife seeking answers, Reece Shearsmith has an undertone of steel as Putin which needs to be teased out more fully, Lloyd Hutchinson impresses in a range of roles including poisoning suspect Kotvun, and Gavin Spokes does his best as the detective who doesn’t comprehend the complexity of his case – but these are small compensations in a production which currently carries a fair amount of bloat.
A Very Expensive Poison is directed by John Crowley and continues in previews until the 7 September, closing on the 8 October. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.
An exhibition on gender identity, fluidity, and more is currently in residence at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre.
Kiss My Genders includes photographs, sculpture, multimedia, and projections from the past fifty years to bring issues around topics as diverse as drag, gender dysphoria, beauty, storytelling, violence, and the celebration of self to the fore.
In an exhibition which sets out to be playfully provocative, unsettling our basic conceptions of what the word “gender” means, audiences can experience queer art, subversive film, alter egos, and much more, through a range of very personal (and sometimes disturbingly raw) works.
Kiss My Genders may not be to all tastes, but it utilising all the Hayward Gallery’s space it is sometimes unsettling to find an oversized rabbit suit on the floor, a wall of Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker stills, a sexually adventurous set of bum and cock photos, the eyes of a dying Candy Darling, a man dragged up as Marilyn Monroe, a hand poking through a pile of leaves at a crime scene.
Accompanied by a book with reproduction images and thoughtful essays, Kiss My Genders places itself firmly in the gender-fluid space of the 21st century, not just in celebration of its uniqueness, but also in acknowledgement of the wider society’s gaze.
Kiss My Genders continues at the Hayward Gallery until the 8 September. I found it an eye-opening and fascinating glimpse into this complex slice of life.