The Cat in the Hat (Turbine Theatre)

Jonathan Ray in The Cat in the Hat

Sally and the Boy are home alone with their Fish, when a tail pokes through the door and gives a great swish …

The Cat in the Hat is a Dr Seuss piece of rhyme, colour, and a bit of anarchy. This stage production, directed by Lillie Collier and designed by David Shields, is based on the National Theatre’s Cottesloe production of ten years ago, and is the third show to be staged at the new Turbine Theatre.

The design is sharply evocative of book illustrations, with line drawings, revolving shelves, and splashes of colour. Jonsthsn Ray’s Cat is more of a Terry-Thomas than a bringer of chaos, and it took him a while to click with the young audience, but I liked his portrayal.

Sally (Grace Miller) has to be both involved in the slapstick and concerned about its outcome, and I really felt this: Miller also expertly manipulated the puppet fish and provided its nannyish voice. The role of the Boy is complicated by the actor (Nick Brittain) also playing a second character, Thing 2, and so disappearing from a large part of the narrative. A shame, I felt.

The rhyme of Dr Seuss is a large part of his charm – mostly delivered with the required sing-song delivery, but the material feels a little thin at times, and this production wants to take more risks with the anarchy and slapstick to pull in its audience of three and above. They loved Cat’s scooter, and the ball game, but more mess and use of the audience aisle might have been even more effective (I loved the bubbles which came down early on).

With superb sound design from Stacey Sandford and a fun climbing/balancing trick from the Cat, the fifty minutes this show runs went quickly and seemed to please its target audience. For me I just wanted the Cat in the Hat to be a bit more naughty, and for the Kitten (Vinesh Veerasami at this performance) to have more to do, like Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Photo credits Garry Lake. The Cat in the Hat continues at the Turbine until 11 January, playing at 10.30 and 12.30, with an additional 3pm performance on 27 December (no 10.30 performance) and 3 January.

The cast of The Cat in the Hat

The Turbine Theatre has come a long way since its launch earlier this year. Prior to this performance I managed to chat briefly to artistic director and show producer Paul Taylor-Mills.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support received over the past four months. It’s been incredible to get to know audiences. We’ve had a play, Torch Song, a musical, High Fidelity, and now a kids show. The Turbine should become a destination place and I look forward to its future.”

Interview with Paul Taylor-Mills, 12 December 2019

I think Paul should be incredibly proud of the Turbine, which is a credit to him and his team. My thanks to him for taking time from his busy schedule to talk.

This was my first visit since the launch – I’m back next week for a concert – and already I feel at home in the friendly atmosphere under the arches at Circus West Village (which can be reached by boat to Battersea Pier or buses which stop at Chelsea Gate, Battersea Park: it’s a short walk down to the Riverside).

A hearty welcome to London’s busy fringe theatre scene. May the Turbine continue “powering the imagination” for some years yet.


Thriller Live (Lyric Theatre)

Thriller Live is coming to the end of a long residency in the West End, and last night I was invited to review Peter Andre’s first night in the guest star slot. He’s no stranger to the show, having appeared at its 4,000th performance celebration. I have never seen this show before, and I’m a casual Michael Jackson fan.

It’s important to state from the off that Thriller Live is in no way a traditional musical. There’s no plot or storyline, no acting characterisation or character development. I’m not sure it can even be classed as a jukebox musical like Beautiful, Jersey Boys or Sunny Afternoon – rather, I would describe it as a slick tribute concert crowd-pleaser presenting the music of the late Michael Jackson.

Seven singers, including Andre, interpret Jackson’s wide song catalogue from his Rockin Robin days (Ishaan Raithatha portrayed the boy Michael) as one of the Jackson 5 to his attempts to get involved in wider political and environmental issues in Earth Song. Vocal stand-outs last night were mean moonwalker Florivaldo Mossi (Billie Jean, Thriller) and long-time cast members John Moabi and Vivienne Ekwulugo (I Just Can’t Stop Loving You), but the effect of changing voices in a relentless parade of songs with the bare minimum of narration was a bit jarring for me.

I found the sequences which kept close to the original choreography and spectacle (Smooth Criminal, Billie Jean, Thriller) worked better than those which tried to do something different. However, with only one image of the actual MJ seen during the whole show, his presence was sorely missing throughout: a hole in the heart of this stylish but shallow show. I would have also welcomed a mix of songs across Jackson’s career rather than a rather slavish chronological approach, as this led the first act to drag a little.

Thriller Live

Thriller Live was once renowned for getting audiences on their feet and keeping them there, but these days it’s harder to retain that energy level. The dancers are all very good – a couple (Deavion Brown and dance captain Lauren Gore) are exceptional – and the stage tech including a bank of LED screens is effective, but any pop concert worth its salt does similar -or even beyond – these days.

When Jackson died in June 2009, Thriller Live was in its first year. It has become a place of celebration and pilgrimage for fans to some degree, which has contributed to its longevity. As such it is no surprise to learn that the tragedy and controversy of his life is not addressed, nor his changing appearance (unless having so many vocalists is an unconscious nod to this). Thriller Live is a sanitised celebration of the King of Pop.

Peter Andre’s fans were out in force and he did perform well: vocally sharp, a good mover with a sizable dollop of charm. His The Way You Make Me Feel, highlighted so much in the pre-show publicity, upped the ante, and his delicate performance of Human Nature was lovely. He injects the show with a bit of new blood and is a pro at pulling the audience in: Man in the Mirror was a particular highlight.

Peter Andre in Thriller Live! Photo credit Betty Zapata

The band are excellent, even tackling the iconic basslines and guitar solo of Beat It with aplomb. Once Thriller Live has its break from the London stage and goes on tour, it may regain the freshness it currently lacks. Having said that, a lively audience did seem to appreciate the effort put on stage in this lengthy show, and there are nuggets here and there that remain enjoyable – I did like the rainbow inclusivity of act one closer Can You Feel It.

A bit less reverence to the subject, and a bit more fire in the routines may go a long way to getting past the fact that this is in effect an expensive imitation of Jackson’s work without Jackson, and without much substance. It’s a very flash and very sophisticated party piece, and it’s fine as a piece of entertainment, but musicals have undoubtedly moved on in the last ten years.

You can book for Thriller Live in the West End here. Peter Andre appears until 22 December; further guest artists are to be announced.

Photo credits: Thriller Live

The Snow Queen (Park Theatre)

The Snow Queen is a classic tale for children by Hans Christian Andersen, and has been adapted for stage production on many occasions. It is also the basic inspiration for the Disney phonemenon that has become Frozen. Currently at the Park Theatre, this version by Charles Way brings the story up to date, with modern children and preoccupations, while still retaining the magic and mystery of the piece.

We first meet the narrator, who tells us how the Snow Queen built herself an ice palace and set up a mirror she could look in to feed her vanity. When the mirror shattered – and the atmospheric set design (by Gregor Donnelly, who also designed the costumes) is full of jagged pieces of wood, metal, and hanging shards which reflect the stage lighting – her heart grew cruel and envious.

Gerda is an intelligent child who reads books, and her friend Cei, who lives next door, is more friend than scholar. They have grown up together and each have lost a parent, which gives an extra frisson to the connection they feel to each other. When Cei changes personality and then disappears, everyone feels they must move on without him: but Gerda begins an adventure which is beautfully portrayed throughout the different scenes she encounters.

Esmonde Cole and Ayesha Casely-Hayford in The Snow Queen
Esmonde Cole and Ayesha Casely-Hayford in The Snow Queen

This Snow Queen was definitely a hit with the children in the audience, who were engrossed in the story throughout and brought into it from the start by the narrator breaking the fourth wall, and into both the snowball fight and a call and response routine with beach balls; in fact I would have liked to see more audience interaction encouraged throughout Gerda’s journey (one child did shout “wake up” at one crucial moment and another utilised the perennial panto refrain “behind you!”). Although the tale, like most of Andersen, is dark and has a lot going on below the surface, the element of comedy on stage, and the fact the protagonist is a child, makes this a very effective family show.

As the story progresses, I found elements of the Wicked Witch in Narnia, Snow White’s “Mirror on the Wall”, the traditional Christmas ghost story, Alice’s Wonderland, Dorothy’s trip to Oz, The Blue Bird, and even Kenny Everett (in the persona of the vain Daffodil as played by Jordan Brett). The writing and dialogue is sharp and the sound design (by James Nicholson) superb, with the different seasons brought to life and the Snow Queen’s constant intervention increasingly chilling.

There are songs by Christopher William Ash, but they are not that memorable or really needed (although a dual lullaby with Gerda’s grandma and Cei’s mother singing to the sleeping children in adjacent houses was nicely done, and the roses are summoned by a lilting melody). Puppet work by Christopher Barlow gives life to Bay the Reindeer, who got his own bow at the end of the show; Barlow is also responsible for the puppets I saw last week in Oi Frog and Friends.

Spring in The Snow Queen
Spring in The Snow Queen

Ayesha Casely-Hayford is very good indeed as Gerda, starting as a slightly clumsy but bookish child and ending up a centred young woman. This is a girl who continues to miss the steady presence of her mother, and who is navigating her transformation from a child with tottering feet. Esmonde Cole, in two roles as Cei and as Fred the Prince, was good in the former role as the cocky boy with a heart of gold, better in the latter, although I felt his teasing courtship of Gerda was a little out of place in the scenes of summer.

Paula James is good in her range of roles as Cei’s mother, the dozy Snowdrop, the changeable Princess, and the Robber Princess. Jordan Brett is excellent as Daffodil and Bay, and shows a touching transformation as Gerda’s Dad. Rounding out the cast are a friendly and efficient Sarah-Louise Young as The Storyteller, Mrs D and Gerda’s grandma, an energetic Matthew Cavendish as Robber Queen, Bindweed and John, and a steely Frances Marshall as the Snow Queen.

If I had one slight reservation about this production, it would be an unnecessary return of the cast to sing after the actual ending, which was performed with perfection. But I’ll forgive that for the joy the production brings, and the sense of the Christmas spirit it brings to the stage at the time it is sorely needed: the Park’s larger theatre looks suitably festive and at times stunning.

The Snow Queen is directed by Abigail Anderson, and continues at the Park Theatre until 4 January 2020. It may not be as spectacular as Frozen, but it is sure to delight both young and old, with a little bit of special magic as you exit the theatre.

Photo credits Manuel Harlan.

& Juliet (Shaftesbury Theatre)

There’s a jukebox on stage playing Max Martin instrumentals, and the speakers are buzzing with life. The stage is colourful and covered with London-specific graffiti, and William Shakespeare (Ivan de Freitas at this performance, having a ball) is the hottest writer on the planet. As this musical starts, he’s letting everyone know about the ending to his new play, Romeo and Juliet, and everyone just feels a bit let down.

Enter Anne Hathaway, who wants to re-write, and we’re into this new world where Juliet, kneeling at her lover’s tomb, stands and walks and gets on with her life. Shoehorning popular songs, even those by the same composer, into a musical is not always a good idea (remember the disaster of Knights of the Rose), but if it is done tongue-in-cheek to some extent, with an element of fun, and with some tightly drawn characters, it can work.

Here, the use of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys hits really blends in with this tale of star-crossed young lovers and this brave new world in which Juliet finds herself. The familiarity means the audience automatically connects with the tunes, and the storyline is strong enough to move this musical out of the “jukebox” category.

Tim Mahendran and Miriam Teak-Lee in & Juliet
Tim Mahendran and Miriam Teak-Lee in & Juliet

Just as the original Romeo had two pals, our Juliet has two, the gender-fluid May and the sparky April (Hathaway inserts herself into her version of this tale). Together with the Nurse, who has secrets hidden in her own past which will be revealed as we watch, they head to – where else? – Paris! This is a high-energy piece of theatre, with songs such as Oops I Did It Again, I Kissed a Girl, and Roar fitting in perfectly to move the plot along.

Miriam Teak-Lee is a real find as Juliet, developing from a scared and grieving teenager to a confident woman unafraid to make her own choices. Her singing is superb, and she dominates her scenes when she is on stage. As May, Arun Blair-Mangat is sassy and touching as the youngster who is exploring both self and sexuality, and Cassidy Janson is fun and frothy as the frustrated Anne and the scatty April.

In Paris, it isn’t all about young love: Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse and David Bedella’s Lance reignite their spark in an amusing couple of vignettes (she’s a tigress, and he’s game for a laugh), and even the bickering Shakespeares start to find some common ground. For Juliet, life is anything but simple, and in Tim Mahendran’s Frankie there’s an element of comic camaderie to contrast with the charmless, childish and petulant Romeo (an effective Jordan Luke Gage) when he finally appears.

Arun Blair-Mangat in & Juliet
Arun Blair-Mangat in & Juliet

I’ve rarely seen a set design as sharply suited to a show as Soutra Gilmour’s, which has a revolve, a rising and falling dias, and lots of other surprises which evoke a variety of different settings. Paloma Young’s costumes are beautiful, from April/Anne’s corset to May’s delicate crown, and Juliet’s array of quick changes. Luke Sheppard directs a large company with flair, and Jennifer Weber’s choreography is ably interpreted. The sound design by Gareth Owen is incredible, with not a note out of place and every song catching the mood perfectly.

I feel that this feel-good musical will have (and should have) a long life in the West End, and it definitely deserves to be celebrated as one of the best musicals to hit London in quite a while. It is flashy and fast-moving, and even has a spoof boy-band, but it finds time for the quiet moments in the Romeo and Juliet story, too, and just a dash of realism. If the ending might not be what everyone is hoping for, as least as Juliet says, I Want It That Way.

Image credits – Johan Persson.

Sh!t Actually (Camden People’s Theatre)

I’m in the market for a spoof on one of the most popular Christmas films, Love Actually, so when I get an invite to see the newest production from Sh!t Theatre, in a theatre that is new to me, I’m duty bound to go.

Sh!t Actually takes careful aim at the storylines we all know and love (tolerate) from the 2003 “classic” and put a special spin all of their own on them.

Sh!t Theatre
Sh!t Theatre

Expect songs which skirt near to the knuckle, Stockholm syndrome, a loving airport homecoming, a liberal dose of “snatch”, a goodie bag, a bit of Beckett, a broom, a film locations tour, a singalong, a tot of Baileys, some panto play and a splash of hardcore porn. Sounds like a perfect festive night out!

Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole of Sh!t Theatre are old hands at this type of edgy, fun, and filthy comedy, looking for all the world like a couple of innocents who have been forcibly made-up as clowns and been given a sprinkle of naughtiness. I haven’t seen one of their shows before but applaud their imagination, devotion to detail, and downright irreverence. They’re talented singers, musicians and movers too.

All the high points of Love Actually are covered, from Emma Thompson’s tears to Martin Freeman’s travel woes, from Andrew Lincoln’s stalking of Keira Knightley’s child bride to Thomas Sangster’s juvenile romance, from Alan Rickman’s bit on the side to everyone’s favourite jumper. But if you’ve never seen the film, fear not, as every storyline is “lovingly” explored and mashed up into total confusion in hilarious style.

Rebecca and Louise of Sh!t Theatre
Rebecca and Louise of Sh!t Theatre

You’ll definitely laugh. And laugh a bit more. And laugh a lot more. And then laugh a bit more still. You’ll never see Love Actually in quite the same way again once you’ve watched a pair of dancing vaginas do battle with Severus Snape. You might not even think of Christmas in quite the same way.

So “jump” into the spirit of Sh!t Actually, “snatch” up a ticket, and listen to the words of wisdom of “Gaz the boom mike operator”. And in the words of the divine but slightly creepy Billy Mack, “f**k w**k bu*ger sh**ing a**e head and hole”. Merry Christmas!

Sh!t Actually is at the Camden People’s Theatre until the 21 December (Tues-Sat only). There is a BSL performance on 19 December at 7.15pm. Images courtesy of Sh!t Theatre.

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

Ghost Quartet (Boulevard Theatre)

For my second Dave Malloy musical this year, I took myself into Soho to the former home of the Raymond Revue Bar, and to the theatre launched by his granddaughter, Fawn James. Ghost Quartet is the first production to launch the season helmed by the Boulevard Theatre’s artistic director Rachel Edwards.

While I admired Preludes over at the Southwark Playhouse, I didn’t really like it, and yet I both admire and like Ghost Quartet. Best approached as a concept album than with any expectation of a linear storyline, this musical is presented to us as a set of sides and tracks, as in the old vinyl days. Each track moves interconnected stories forward, but it can be confusing trying to keep up with who’s who and what period of time we are in.

The music is a mix of country folk and avant garde, with the four actor-musicians (Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla) playing a range of instruments from a melodic piano to discordant percussion. The songs are both haunting and disturbing, often both together, and there are moments of total darkness (save for the odd emergency lights which stand for stars) and bright, warm moments such as the ode to various types of whisky and friendship.

Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon
Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon

Ghost Quartet takes elements from many myths and stories which have been passed down, from The Twa Sisters through Edgar Allen Poe to the Arabian Nights. The characters blend into each other and time is meaningless (at one point a character says to another “do you remember when” and is told “I don’t think that has happened yet”). The new space at the Boulevard is somewhat claustrophobic but the staging in the round works well with this piece, as audience members are encouraged to join in the music, have a drink, and ultimately take charge of the stage during the last number.

Unlikes Preludes, which kept the audience at arms length, while detailing every aspect of the story unfolding in front of them, Ghost Quartet keeps its audience guessing and makes them work hard to stay involved in what’s going on. Clever lighting (Emma Chapman), sound design (David Gregory) and musical direction (Benjamin Cox) keeps the heightened atmosphere going, and the four actors have a chemistry between them that allows them to be believable in short vignettes which bring their characters together.

I admired Varla’s performance earlier in the year at Equus, and he displays a very different aspect of his skill-set here, proving to be a fine pianist when channelling the work of Thelonious Monk, who may or not be present in the space as a ghost. Bawden is delicate and ethereal as Rose and Roxie, children who are affected by spirit visitations, while Memon’s vocal range and distorted microphone gives her characters a sense of horror and abandon. Curradi is less intense, but brings a wide range of instruments together to weave an effective soundscape.

Zubin Varla
Zubin Varla

Dave Malloy’s score, text and lyrics pull you into the show and the songs are of the type that reward mutiple listens: from the opening number I Don’t Know they are toe-tapping and inclusive. Subway has a sense of the macabre, Starchild of innocence, The Telescope of chance, Tango Dancer of passion, and Soldier and Rose of regret. This is a complex show that can be pieced together like a jigsaw, or shaken in the air to see where the shapes fall.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst and designed by Simon Kenny, with movement direction by Georgina Lamb (exploring places, spaces, and characters), Ghost Quartet continues at the Boulevard Theatre in Soho until 4 January. I’d heartily recommend you go and see it if you can; it’s a new kind of musical in a beautiful and flexible new theatre space.

Photo credits Marc Brenner.

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.