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.

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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.

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


Oi Frog and Friends (Lyric Theatre)

Based upon the picture books by Kes Gray and Jim Field, Oi Frog and Friends brings the various species of pupil at Sittingbottom School for Animals to rhyming life in this delightful and charming piece of children’s theatre.

Created for the stage by Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes, this family musical extravaganza has much for preschoolers and above and their parents to enjoy, and even solo reviewers delving into their family-friendly souls.

We first meet Cat, who is a purrrfect prefect, managing the book of rules that dictates mules sit on stools, hares sit on chairs, and so on. When Frog joins the school as the new boy, he finds sitting on a log isn’t quite for him, and this is where the problems begin.

John Winchester as Frog
John Winchester as Frog

With vibrant performances, clever and inventive puppetry, catchy songs, and a lot of audience participation to keep children interested as well as getting them to embrace new words, Oi Frog is a hit from the first scene, with in-jokes for adults including spoof ads and a Meerkat TV reporter which reminds you of Kermit’s stint behind the roving mike on Sesame Street.

As characters as diverse as a fox, an ostrich, a whale, a gnu, and a partying cheetah, Simon Yadoo displays a diverse set of voices and characters in the cast. John Winchester works hard to give a voice, a personality and an infectious laugh to the power-hungry Frog, plagued by rhyme all the time.

As Cat, Lucy Tuck is suitably supercilious and even recounts her days in the Stunt Cat TV show, where she risks her nine lives. She is determined to make her final life count by climbing to defeat the megalomaniac Frog, navigating a lot of scatalogical jokes about smells, farts and bottoms along the way.

John Winchester as Frog, Simon Yadoo as Cheetah
John Winchester as Frog, Simon Yadoo as Cheetah

The moral of this riotous tale: not all animals have a rhyme and in the end, just sit where you like! A gloriously colourful tale, with genuinely creative props, costume and choreography, and a sense of fun and camaderie with a young audience, Oi Frog should form an essential part of your family Christmas.

Oi Frog and Friends is directed by Emma Earle, with songs composed by Luke Bateman and written by Richy Hughes. It continues at the Lyric Theatre until 5 January (except for 25-26 December and 1 January) in morning performances. Book tickets at the Nimax website.

It will also enjoy a short run from 11-12 February at The Beck Theatre in Hayes.

Photo credits – Pamela Raith

Austentacious (Fortune Theatre)

Improvised shows are always fun, as Showstopper! proved early in 2019. That was a completely improvised musical, with a title suggested by the audience, and three musical styles agreed.

Austentatious, as you might imagine, presents an “improvised Jane Austen novel” from a suggested title, under the guise of one of Austen’s many “lost” works. At the show I saw, the title chosen was “Mansfield Caravan Park” which turned into an amusing piece about snobbery, hidden passions, improbable triplets, an incongurous pan factory, a study in adverbiage, and a heap of hidden gay subtext.

The title of the show itself is a play on words, on “ostentatious”, which is loosely defined as seeking to attract attention by obviousness. Quite often comedy can be unduly broad without much thought behind it, but the team behind Austentacious clearly have Janeite souls and can quickly react to whatever situations and lines are thrown to them, including sight gags and name puns.

Although I regretted the absence of actual Austen characters in caravan-land (what fun could have been had with the Eltons, or Lady Catherine De Bourgh), the characters created by the team were excellently portrayed, and came together well to advance the story, even including the requisite happy ending(s).

Just announced for a continuing residence at the Fortune Theatre (Sundays and Mondays) from 24 February into mid-July 2020, Austentacious is not just for Jane Austen afficionados (although having a working knowledge of her novels probably helps) but for anyone who likes to watch a company making it up as they go along, and seeing how successful it will be. There’s even a loyalty card scheme – attend four shows and get the fifth free – for those dedicated to catching most of Austen’s lost classics.

The cast of Austentacious at the performance I saw included Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Andrew Hunter Murray, Cariad Lloyd, and Charlotte Gittins. The lack of a programme means I cannot fully credit the whole company or their creatives, but all combine to create a show which entertains, diverts and delights in equal measure. If you have the pride and the prejudice, the sense and the sensibility, and you have the persuasion to park yourself, you will enjoy this show.

Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers (Battersea Arts Centre, Council Chamber)

Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers is the first in a series of shows for children I will be reviewing over the festive period. My thanks to Battersea Arts Centre for the ticket.

Promotion photo by The Other Richard
Promotion photo by The Other Richard

This latest show by Sleeping Trees follows their usual pattern of mashing up stories, but is squarely aimed at a younger audience: Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers runs in the Battersea Arts Centre’s council chamber and encourages movement and noise as part of their “relaxed performance” strategy.

As John, James and Josh leaf through Nana’s story book, they discover that all the endings have been torn out. Once Goldilocks meets and follows the White Rabbit in the cottage of the Three Bears, things get very odd indeed, and by the time Athos, Porthos and Aramis turn up, the madcap nature of this panto is complete.

Production photo by Adam Trigg
Production photo by Adam Trigg

Sleeping Trees are “a narrative-driven sketch trio” and their flair for comedy is obvious throughout Goldilocks. John Woodburn’s dastardly Alice is a hoot, while Josh George Smith’s Hatter and Humpty have a feel of a Biggins about them, and James Dunnell-Smith makes a delighful storybook heroine.

Quick changes and inventive plot twists keep the show moving, though, with characters such as Alice, Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty, Santa, BFG, and “The Greatest Snownan” all playing their part. Props, too, are fun, from tiny teacups and a carrot to a succession of hats.

With the traditional “Oh no it isn’t” refrain and a hearty sprinkle of songs, a shrinking portion, and a battle royal at the North Pole, this Goldilocks is entertaining, but the complex storyline and cast of characters could cause very small children to get lost. That it appeared to hold their attention is a tribute to the performances on stage.

Production photo by Adam Trigg
Production photo by Adam Trigg

Directed by Kerry Frampton, and co-written with Ben Hales, who also provides on-stage musical accompaniment, this panto provides rib-tickling amusememt for parents and a healthy dose of audience participation for little ones. Zahra Mansouri’s set design holds childhood’s sense of wonder and Pablo Bas Fernandez’s lighting gives a sprinking of magic.

Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers continues at Battersea Arts Centre until 31 December.

Preview and interview: The Signalman

A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel. He’s sure it’s a warning – but what is it warning against?

Quote from publicity for The Signalman

In the grand tradition of festive adaptations from Charles Dickens, and the Ghost Story for Christmas, a new production by Paragon Theatre Collective of The Signalman arrives at the Old Red Lion in Islington on 10 December, running until 4 January 2020.

As I am a fan of both this short story and Dickens in general (I’m seeing Great Expectations as another festive treat), I wanted to know more about The Signalman and those involved. My thanks to actor Tim Larkfield, director Sam Raffal and writer Martin Malcolm, who agreed to answer some questions for this feature.

Poster image for The Signalman, Image credit Elee Nova

Interview about The Signalman

The Signalman is such an iconic story and many of us remember the chilling TV adaptation. How are you planning to bring the complexities of this story to a small stage?

SR: This adaptation places The Signalman at the centre of the story. He narrates the past horrors he’s witnessed as well as elucidating his thoughts and trying to unpick his feelings on what he’s experienced. He speaks to Joe, a crossing sweeper who essentially represents the audience. This allows the viewer to unravel the story and, along with some clever lighting and sound effects, draws you right in to the heart of the story.

TL: I think it’s a very intimate show because it focuses on human emotions and reactions to extraordinary events. Of course we will have sound and lighting effects to help evoke a Victorian steam railway, but I think the quality of the writing really conjures up a sense of time, place and atmosphere for the audience.

MM: It’s a very immersive experience, we even (gently) cast the audience! We also have a spooky, evocative soundscape that wraps around us, plus there are Victorian songs to take you deep into The Signalman‘s shadowy world. With ghost stories, suspense and anticipation are crucial. Helen Baranova plays a silent onlooker and her wordless reactions are a touchstone for the audience. We experience The Signalman‘s tragic story through her sympathetic responses.

The ghost story is a traditional part of Christmas, with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol having several outings across London this year. What attracted you to this particular tale?

MM: First, it’s a cracking ghost story that fully delivers on Christmas chills.  But it’s also a chance to explore a lesser-known Dickens story. Written at the very end of his life, it’s one that sums up the concerns that lay closest to his heart: the poor, the homeless, the overlooked and dispossessed people he saw in the London streets. It’s a story that resonates with our own time too. The Signalman is driven to his tragedy by what we would call his zero-hours contract and his frail mental health.

TL: I have seen the TV version – which I actually have in a box-set on DVD at home with other BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas. But when I first read an extract from the script, I didn’t know it was based on a Dickens story: I just loved the immediacy of the writing. It’s a great role to play. I think The Signalman is a complex character and the script touches on many issues that are still very relevant today.

SR: I knew when I first read the play that it had potential as a Christmas story, but it works without it being advertised as a seasonal piece. I loved the script and knew I wanted to be involved as soon as I read it. It’s a classic short story and hopefully our production will do it justice.

Your production brings in other characters, like Joe from Bleak House, to open out the narrative. What purpose do they serve in your adaptation?

MM: Joe, a lost homeless child, helps The Signalman by patiently listening as he tries to come to terms with what’s haunting him. We wanted to give our Signalman someone to talk to, who would be a reassuring sympathetic presence and who wouldn’t go judging him. With Joe’s help, the Signalman opens his heart and as he does we get let in on his story.

TL: The crossing sweeper is a silent listener, but I think she also represents something bigger – the under-represented or the under-privileged, people who are ignored and not listened to, or blamed for something that is not their fault. The character is on stage throughout the production, so the audience hear the story through her, in a way.

SR: As I mentioned, Joe carries the responsibility of not only being a fully rounded character in her own right, but also as a direct link to us, the audience. She shares our hopes, fears and sense of dread. To the signalman, she represents society as a whole – he must convince her that the accident that has precipitated this play was not his fault.

Helen Baranova and Tim Larkfield in The Signalman. Image by Elee Nova.
Helen Baranova and Tim Larkfield in The Signalman. Image by Elee Nova.

The Signalman relies on a sense of terror and foreboding, which builds up throughout the piece/ If you were to describe your production in one tagline as if it were a cinema film, what would it be?

SR: “A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel. He’s sure it’s a warning – but what is it warning against?”

MM: “There is danger hanging over this line. Something is coming.”

TL: “Something wasn’t right. I was warned…”

Tell me a bit more about the cast and creatives behind this adaptation, and what are your future plans once The Signalman ends?

SR: I’m an actor, writer, director and producer, and trained at the Poor School and Identity School of Acting. The Signalman is the second play I have directed; my first, Fake News, was a total sell-out at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. We have Samuel Welch as sound designer, an associate artist with Paragon Theatre Collective. Our set designer is Mike Leopold, who’s worked on dozens of shows and been nominated in the Offies three times.

MM: I writes contemporary drama, but I’m also keen on plays that relate stories of the past to the world today. We’ve been talking about a new piece of theatre that takes verbatim accounts of Victorian street life and gives them a modern-day twist.  It’s an idea that’s grown out of our work on The Signalman and we can’t wait to see where it goes.  

TL: We’ve gathered together some really talented people who have all brought their own ideas to the piece. I’m looking forward to bringing the show to life at the suitably haunted Old Red Lion Theatre! Once this run is over we would like to take it on tour, and potentially perform it as a site-specific piece. I think it would be brilliant to do the show in an abandoned railway station at night…!

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Kissing Rebellion (Ovalhouse Downstairs)

The Ovalhouse is closing down, and moving to Brixton. As part of a final “Demolition Party” season, theatre companies and creators are invited to utilise the space in any way they choose, and the Downstairs theatre now has holes in the floor and the walls from runs of We Dig and Gaping Hole.

Kissing Rebellion is a piece inspired by the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, and by the idea of love and loss, heartbreak and healing. Utilising stories and recordings collated by co-creators Carolyn Defrin and Abigail Boucher at dinners in Chicago, Paris and Los Angeles, we see various scenarios acted out in movement and dance.

Poster image of Kissing Rebellion

The first scene is a table-bound discussion, interrupted by mimed eating, smoking, and animated laughter. The subject is kisses: the first, the best, the longest. The one you want to remember. It’s intriguing, but not quite drawing the audience in. Not yet.

Once the eight performers start to explore and utilise the space, pairing up, splitting up, reacting to stories, song, and music, Kissing Rebellion starts to take flight. A mother and daughter. An old man who hugs the cousin he’s always loved, knowing he will never see her again. A dreamer who climbs up in his fantasy to kiss Tom Daley, pre-dive, in darkness. A woman who is “kissing someone new”.

Kisses are intimate, between lovers, families, or close friends. Hugs offer comfort, warmth, even between animals and birds. It’s how we all communicate beyond language and without words. It’s visceral. The songs in Kissing Rebellion are in French, Hebrew, English.

Karen Callaghan in Kissing Rebellion
Karen Callaghan in Kissing Rebellion

Defrin appears in the piece, kicking off the stories in the first scene, singing a lullaby later in the broken space at the back of the stage. She’s joined by Juliette Tellier, Matthew Rawcliffe, Karen Callaghan, Manjushri Jones, Luke Elliott, Olivier Leclaire, and Yemurai Zvaraya.

Characters and performers as young, old, straight, gay, assexual, athletic (in one scene the group have their backs to us, taking all their top clothing off, displaying their muscle movement), vulnerable (two older ladies laugh together, one being pulled back from what can be read as dementia).

Kissing Rebellion is about everything, and about nothing. It’s a brave piece which clicks now and again: the “kiss of the tube doors” in one story evoked not just Paris, but London, and the day I saw the show there had been a terrorist attack on London Bridge just hours before, making this choice of show a surreal watch.

The company of Kissing Rebellion

Connor Bowmott has made the most of the broken space – rags flow down at one side, the cavernous hole becomes a pool and a vibrant dance floor, the lighting by Joe Hornsby illuminates different spaces and is warm when it needs to be, harsh when required, seeking out corners we may wish to hide.

Kissing Rebellion closed at the Ovalhouse on 30 November. Photo credits: Rosie Powell.

Battersea Bardot (workshop, BFI Southbank)

In the first of what is hoped to be a series of collaborations with new British musicals created for the stage at the BFI, Battersea Bardot brings the story of actress Carol White to life in the person of versatile singer/actress Lizzii Hills. The title comes from the nickname given to her by the media, equating her with the French sexpot actress of the late 1950s.

Carol White (1943-1991) was born in Putney, Hammersmith, the daughter of a scrapyard merchant. Starting in talent contests as a child, she had her first uncredited film role at the age of eight (in Kind Hearts and Coronets), and her first credited film role in Circus Friends in 1956. Her peak years were between 1966 (the year she starred in the television film directed by Ken Loach, Cathy Comes Home) and 1969 (when she tried to make it in Hollywood, and her career floundered as she became “just another blonde”).

It’s New Year’s Eve 1969 when we first meet Carol in Battersea Bardot, after a brief opener with the emergency call which prefigured her death at the age of 48. She’s drinking heavily and waiting for the arrival of her American producer boyfriend Paul (presumably Paul Burke, an actor whose wife did indeed attempt suicide because of her husband’s affair with White) to the posh London suburban home she has hardly lived in.

Poster image for Battersea Bardot
Poster image for Battersea Bardot

Through Ewen Moore’s songs and passages of dialogue, we find Carol White’s life and loves dissected and presented through her own vodka-sodden reminisces. The dreams of success, the early marriage (to one-time pop singer Mike King, father of her two children), the first film roles, the wild promiscuity which led her to throw herself at multiple men in positions of power, the fame which came too quickly and faded all too soon.

The men in her life seem to define Carol: her father, who called her “his pocket Venus”; her uncle who had rough hands and stale breath; her husband (only one mentioned, she had three in her short life); the relationships with Peter Sellers, Adam Faith, Oliver Reed (she spiked his drink in a Putney launderette, and mentions him a lot), Frank Sinatra; the producer who signed her to a Hollywood contract then cancelled it when her films started to fail. There is no mention of her mother, or female co-stars, or friends. Even her children are both male, appearing with her in Cathy Come Home.

Moore’s songs are catchy enough, from the title Battersea Bardot through to slow pieces reflecting on “the summer I spent with Sinatra” and upbeat songs like the one about the Peter Pan talent contest. Lizzii Hills resembles White in passing, and she makes the actress both likeable and pathetic, especially when the story reveals stories of abuse and mistreatment, hidden under a veneer of “the queen of 1969”. A thirst for fame led White to make poor business decisions and leave the husband and children she loved, for the bright lights of Tinseltown and Vegas, and the lure of money.

Carol White
Carol White

There are moments of honesty in the narrative that reveal the naivete behind the girl who has now been largely forgotten, or left as a footnote in British movie history. On Cathy Come Home, “after Ken [Loach] called cut, I was still shaking”; on Never Let Go (“I had three male co-stars, and I slept with all of them”); on Paul (“did I know he was married? yes, but so was I. It was what you did, part of the game”); on her own personality (“they called me the wild one”).

Some facts have been tweaked for dramatic effect – she did not really take much of a break from films to have her children, and a nine-year gap between films alluded to removes what I think was one of her best (if difficult) roles in The Squeeze from the narrative. It’s also unclear whether Frank Sinatra would have really wanted to marry a second woman thirty years his junior so soon after seperating from Mia Farrow, so this “best time in her life” may have been a bit of wish-fulfillment.

Portrait of Carol White
Portrait of Carol White

Ralph Bogard directed this ninety-minute piece, in which composer Moore accompanied Hills, whose superlative performance (she never leaves the stage) brought one of the quintessential faces of 1960s London back to life. I left humming some of the songs and wanting to search through my DVD collection to reacquaint myself with many of White’s performances.

There’s a quirky ending, too, in which 1969 Carol watches as the ashes of 1991 Carol are brought back to England by parcel post on a plane, and child Carol watches from her father’s scrapyard where she waves to the jets passing overhead. This is almost a frame from a film, itself, and brings us full circle, marrying the stage show we have just experienced with the woman visible on the screen in her 51 credits (including Poor Cow, I’ll Never Forget What’s-Is-Name, The Fixer, Dulcima, and Made).

The journey for this show is just beginning, and I hope to see it further down the line when it becomes largely in scale and scope. Battersea Bardot was performed at the Studio at BFI Southbank on 29 November, as part of the BFI Musicals season.

Her Way (work in progress, John Thaw Studio)

Utilising music, multimedia, a couple of puppets and a female God who drinks just a bit too much, Her Way finished its brief run at the Actors Centre last night as part of the Motherhood(s) Season of new writing.

The company of seven portray God and her nemesis Luci (Lucifer/Satan), Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Left and Right Hands of God. The last two strut like minor gangsters, in command of the Almighty phonelines, but its clear they are far from the power behind Herself.

After an odd start, in which a performer playing a video game on her phone is virtually obliterated (if you’re going to have some audience interaction, do it more than this, or reduce it and get on with the story), we meet Adam, First Man and President of a world he doesn’t quite understand.

Adam, with Brian the Lion and Sam the Sheep
Adam, with Brian the Lion and Sam the Sheep

Not until Eve arrives, sexy and sarcastic in a tight PVC skirt, letting loose the proverbial and literal snake in the bed (“do you think it would alarm it/if I put it in your armpit”, sings a nonplussed Adam) and dismissing God’s cohorts.

The songs sometimes explode into fully-fledged song and dance moments, sometimes something more reflective. There’s more than one earworm in a score which definitely has real potential, and one song, Dead Meat, sung by Brian the puppet lion, is a quirky exploration of how the First Humans became carnivore.

Equating the genesis of the world with Trumpism, though, needs further exploration, and the final number of the night, In God We Trust, seemed to stutter to and end without really saying much. There’s a lot to explore about female potential and male power, and Her Way certainly has the legs to do it.

God with her Left and Right Hands
God with her Left and Right Hands

Cast members are Vivian Belosky (Eve, as in “Christmas”), Judith Von Orelli (who makes a marvellous tipsy and pissed-off God), Paul Brayward (the glowing Right Hand), Brian Raftery (Cain and Brian), Louisa Swanson (Left Hand and the devious Luci, “yeah, the wings don’t work”), Jess Peet (Abel, Gabriel and Sam the Sheep), Kieran Stallard (Adam and MD).

Directed by Becky Harrison, this musical is inventive and funny, and even as a work in progress with a lot of further work to do, it was the perfect antidote to a draining and complex play earlier in the day.

In a pre-show preamble, Belosky told us that Her Way should return at another venue in 2020. My advice is to keep an eye on this one: it has the makings of something rather special and fun to add to the fringe scene.

Photos courtesy of @@HerWay_Musical.

When The Crows Visit (Kiln Theatre)

Ibsen returns to London and to India for the second time this year, following A Doll’s House at Lyric Hammersmith. This time, Ghosts is the play which suggests and influences the text of what has become When The Crows Visit, a new play by Anupama Chandrasekhar.

We open the play in a deceptively light-handed manner, with bed-bound Jaya (a slowly monstrous Soni Razdan) running a young girl, Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon, who handles a difficult part with the right gradient of touch) ragged. She could be her grandchild, but we quickly learn she is the hired help.

Also in the house is pragmatic widow Hema (Ayesha Dharker) who has inherited from a husband we quickly learn was abusive, and who misses her golden boy, son Akshay (an outstanding Bally Gill, who inhabits all facets of a character under suspicion of a horrific crime).

Akshay and Hema
Akshay and Hema

Jaya lives part in fantasy-land, part in denial, and sees especially disturbed by the crows who visit the garden – these birds are superly evoked in shadow puppet form by Matt Hutchinson, and by the occasional floating feather until the final, disturbing scene, underscored with its grotesque sense of what is not shown.

This is a hot country, where noise is constant and moral codes are twisted in favour of the patriarchy. In a wordy and perceptive scene between Hema and her more relaxed sister, Kavita (Mariam Haque, who slinks about in loose clothing and angrily defends her daughters as “clever, independent women”), it is clear how much the former loves her son, even to the point of “scapegoating an innocent”.

At first sight, Akshay seems amiable at first, but displays a poor attitude to women: first the executive at his video game company (also played by Haque), then the waitress we do not see, who “gives him the finger” when he yells at her. At home, he seems the dutiful son but exhibits a coldness which grows as his situation becomes more precarious.

Hema and Jaya
Hema and Jaya

The crime in which Akshay is implicated – and there is never any doubt of his guilt – is the rape and beating of a girl who is at first in a coma, and then dies. The details of the crime are not spared, and are shockingly horrific; although I feel Chandrasekhar was right to write in the specifics that make this good Indian boy, from a good family, a monster.

There are moments of comedy – the neighbour who complains of bird mess on his new car (Asif Khan); the video game where the penguin cannot waddle. Even the police inspector (also Khan) has slightly witty moments before he descends into blackmail and self-serving face-saving.

This serves in a way to make three powerful scenes in act two more dynamic: a confrontation between mother and son, an abuse of power between son and maid, and the eventual devastation which is locked from our sight, and that of Hema and Jaya, but not from our ears, or theirs.

Ragini and Akshay
Ragini and Akshay

The woman who dies is nameless far too long, and her only crime seems to be “looking into the eyes of a man as she walks past”. Her abuser has too much time to gain our sympathy, but I suppose that makes it more horrific when he says participating in the attack “made him feel like a king”.

This is one of those rare plays where applause is held back at the final blackouts, and even, briefly, at cast bows as the audience takes time to process what they have just seen.

When The Crows Visit is on at the Kiln Theatre until 30 November. It is directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Photo credits Mark Douet.

Dora Versus Picasso (Drayton Arms)

Publicity image for Dora Versus Picasso
Publicity image for Dora Versus Picasso

Dora Marr was one of the great muses of Pablo Picasso’s life: a photographer who understood his art, a woman who captivated him from their first meeting where she repeatedly stabbed a cafe table with a knife, cutting her finger.

The incident is depicted here, although more could have been made of it beyond the act of pulling back a glove to kiss the wound. Picasso, in fact, kept Marr’s bloodstained glove for the rest of his life. It was the catalyst of a tempestuous and creative obsession on both sides.

Dora Versus Picasso attempts to shine a light on this relationship and to reinstate Marr as the creative force she undoubtedly was – an exhibition of her work is currently running at the Tate Modern, promising to be the most comprehensive ever curated. She politicised him, he humanised her, and that’s the core of their long association.

Dora Marr
Dora Marr

Picasso should appear as a force of nature, a towering creative, an exemplar of sexual energy. Why else would a succession of women – three depicted in this play – submit themselves to becone his mistress? In Kevin G Drury’s portrayal there is more of a sense of inevitable boredom at his need to seek out constantly polygamous relationships.

Dora Maar (played by co-writer and co-director Claire-Monique Martin), described by Picasso himself as “the weeping woman” because of her emotional instability, seems unnervingly calm, her only crack appearing when she engages in a (factual) fight with Marie-Therese Walter, the earlier muse who inspired the artist and bore him a child.

Adapted from Cecil Jenkins’s novel (Emma Jesse being the other co-adapter and director), the writing sometimes takes wing (a bullfight is described as a “crucifixion and a circus”, modern art is “madness, masturbation and wallpaper design”), but there are scenes which confused me. In act two, is Dora undergoing shock therapy when restrained, and if so, why is there no other reference to it?

Simon Chappell (Sabartes) and Isobel Young in rehearsal
Simon Chappell (Sabartes) and Isobel Young in rehearsal

As Picasso’s other muses, Marie-Therese and Francoise Gillot, Isobel Wood and Samantha Gray do well with parts which are fairly peripheral to the narrative. Both are presented as very young but it is telling that Picasso gets a free pass for his exploitation of women in the name of art: Dora refers to “gynaecological” sketches of Marie-Therese as “making her more of a child”, which is disturbing but not followed up.

Hannah Williams’s set and costume design, and Anna Joseph’s lighting design, are simple but effective, with backlit screens, a white drape (which briefly becomes baby Mia), and brightly toned clothes. It feels period perfect for the 1930s, although the ten-year period being depicted could perhaps have been signposted with more clarity, and I would have liked a sense of Picasso’s Cubism in the design.

Picasso’s great work. Guernica, is born in a tantalising scene which closes act one, but it is frustrating that we never see anything of it in progress or at completion. There’s a good scene early on where Maar climbs on to Picasso’s lap to snap photos of him – photos which she manipulates to make him grotesque – but we don’t see the paintings he makes of Dora which are hinted at in the show’s publicity, equally otherworldly.

Dora and Picasso
Dora and Picasso

Last night’s performance was affected by the audibility of some scenes: partially due to the noisy fans which attempt to keep the space cool, partially due to directorial decisions to speak some lines sotto voce or turned away from the audience. If this can be reconsidered, the opening scene in particular may have more immediate power.

Ultimately, Dora Versus Picasso is a laudable attempt to bring a female artist out of the shadow of her lover. It made me think of Carrington, in which the intensely platonic association between Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey was explored and depicted in the 1995 film. Also on film around the same time, Anthony Hopkins portrayed the difficult role of the manipulative artist in Surviving Picasso, which may well stand up to reappraisal.

Dora Versus Picasso continues at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 30 November. Production photo credits Stephanie Claire.

Uncle Vanya (New Wimbledon Studio)

Following on from my interview with company director and performer Venetia Twigg earlier in the week, I stopped off in Wimbledon today to see the newest production from Theatrical Niche: Twigg’s adaptation of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya.

Vanya (Matthew Houlihan) runs the farm and estate together with his niece, Sonia (Foxey Hardman), who inherited it from her late mother, Vanya’s sister. They are currently being hospitable to Sonia’s father, a Professor (Mike Aherne) in a constant state of poor health, and his young wife, Yelena (Twigg).

Into this familial space comes Dr Astroff (David Tudor), called to attend on the Professor, but just like the faithful, toiling Vanya, he falls in love with the pretty but idle Yelena. In the shadows plain but clever Sonia dreams naively of the doctor, embellishing meaningless little moments of courtesy into imitations of love.

David Tudor as Astroff and Foxey Hardman as Sonia
David Tudor as Astroff and Foxey Hardman as Sonia

Theatrical Niche’s production mixes modern vernacular, physical theatre and choreography, and a faithful if truncated exploration of Chekhov’s story, and mixes it with the metaphor of bees. The workers are the women (represented by Sonia), the drones the male sex slaves (Astroff and Vanya), all dominated and disturbed by the Queen (Yelena).

Vanya’s descent into drink and suicidal despair in the final act, pushed by the Professor’s distain of both his former brother-in-law and daughter, is well represented. Astroff’s blank aloofness with Sonia while he is dazzled by the beauty of Yelena leads him to neglect his trees and planting, and his other patients. Sonia’s attempt to find a friend in her stepmother just hastens calamity.

From “drowning in honey” at the start of the play to drowning in despair by the end, Uncle Vanya‘s trajectory may feel dramatic; the setting, all wooden frames and boxes, and the bee/conservation parallel, makes it feel up to date, even if one or two pieces of contemporary slang (“diddly squat”) jar with the musicality of the original source.

Matthew Houlihan as Vanya
Matthew Houlihan as Vanya

This is a Vanya which is small in stature but big in heart, which blends its elements in the Studio’s black box space to create an experience which resonates with a 21st century prooccupation with money, work and mental health. It is an engrossing play which has moments which chill and move its audience, and the intimacy of a small space heightens this feeling.

Director Nadia Papachronpoulou’s programme notes speak of approaching Chekhov from “both the psychological and physiological … to create a visceral physical experience”. I think she has succeeded, along with movement director Amy Lawrence in developing a piece which considers and demonstrates the impact of the actions of one person on another.

Uncle Vanya has finished its run in Wimbledon but is on at the Old Red Lion in Islington from 2 – 7 December.

Photo credits Ali Wright.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (Chiswick Playhouse)

Yesterday I was invited to the former Tabard Theatre to see a new version of the second-longest running musical Off-Broadway, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The auditorium hasn’t changed but this show is rather more ambitious than previously seen here.

Updated to include references to Tinder, Grindr, Netflix and, very topically, Pizza Express, this musical covers a range of relationships from the awkwardness of first dates to first child, middle-age parents to happy singletons, married dotage to awkward widowhood.

Naomi Slights, Dominic Hodson, Laura Johnson in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

The cast of four handle the different characterisations and couplings well, and the single piano accompaniment – if a little strident at times – is very effective. With a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, this musical brings all forms of love, loss and life to the fore. Similar in time and scope to I Do! I Do! (although that follows the same couple through life), it works on its familiar situations which cause conspiratorial laughs from the audience.

All four were excellent and did justice to an interesting and varied score. George Rae’s touching gay widower finding new romance at a funeral and husband of three decades finding peace with his Guardian-reading wife. Laura Johnson’s perennial bridesmaid and over-caring new mum. Hodson’s dinner-party bore and passively-aggressive dad. Naomi Slights’s bubbling tennis champ and frustrated wife who has no time for passion: all worked well.

George Rae in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
George Rae in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

I can’t really comment on the technical aspects of the production as the lights failed after twenty minutes and the rest of the show was performed in one setting, but this and the slight break that proceeded it was handled well by all concerned, especially Naomi Slights who had to scene change, dance, and guide a couple who had nipped down to the bar back to their seats!

The one aspect of an otherwise delightful and thoughtful show which does look dated are the bookend scenes, where the cast sing of Adam and Eve and the foibles of men and women. This feels as if it belongs elsewhere, but it’s a small quibble when the rest of Charlotte Westenra’s production is so fresh and entertaining.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change continues at the Chiswick Playhouse (just round the corner from Turnham Green station) until 30 November.

Photo credits: Savannah Photographic.

The Taming of the Shrew (RSC at The Barbican)

The female cast of The Taming of the Shrew
The female cast of The Taming of the Shrew

This gender-bending version of Shakespeare’s problematic comedy is not the first where the message is hammered home through a matriarchal society, dominated by women who even inherit property through the female lane.

Back in 2016’s Verve Festival, at Above the Arts, a version by Custom/Practice had a very similar focus, including a boisterious Petruchio from Martina Laird. In reviewing my write-up of that production, I can see the RSC one has many similar problems.

Having all the male characters played by women, and all the female ones played by men, is an interesting idea. The Taming of the Shrew is a play about power and gender politics, and so shaking up the assumption that men run the show and women are their chattels gives an interesting insight into the nature of roles, obedience, and convention.

Katherine and Petruchia
Katherine and Petruchia

Still called Katherine, the troublesome eldest son of Baptista seems a little muted, and easy for his wife (surely a shrew herself by any definition) to mould to her will. This is not the noisy, quarrelling, troublesome Kate on the page. Joseph Arkley’s portrayal almost makes it a shame to yoke him to Claire Price’s domineering Petruchia.

His brother Bianco becomes a vain and petulant young man rather than a sweet and pliant rose: it is difficult to see why he would be wooed by three gentlewomen who appear to regard him as irresistible. He simply is not, and in fact with servants who resemble him down to the hair tossing you can’t help thinking all the ladies are barking up the wrong tree.

Of those three, Gremia has the most scope for comedy, as Sophie Stanton glides across the floor like a chess piece, looking for all the world like an Alice in Wonderland character who has lost her way. Lucencia, sadly, is too drippy and dumb to catch the interest – but a perfect partner for this show’s Bianco. Emily Johnstone and James Cooney catch their quizzical courtship well.

Lucencia and Bianco
Lucencia and Bianco

As with many lighter Shakespeares, switched identities abound, with Lucencia and Trania swapping places, a couple of Vincenzias, and a lot of subterfuge. A scene with Richard Clews as Grumio and BSL practitioner Charlotte Arrowsmith as Curtis was richly comic and inventive, and Melody Brown’s imperious Vincentia had the measure of any other woman on the scene.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design had a richness and depth that allowed both small-scale intimate scenes and dancing, with the musicians hidden in the platform corners. Justin Audibert’s direction tried to open up the piece, but ultimately fell under the weight of a plot that values total submission as the route to happiness.

The Taming of the Shrew continues as part of the RSC’s repertory season at the Barbican. Photo credits Ikin Yum.

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).