The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy have passed me by a bit, so this musical adaptation by Emma Reeves about Mildred Hubble’s adventures at Miss Cackle’s academy was fresh and new for me.
Fast-paced and fun, this show has something for both the youngsters and the young at heart, as we head back to the day the disorganised Mildred found herself with the new batch of witches by mistake.
Dealing with the plotting of the devious Ethel, and finding friends in the studious Maud (Rebecca Killick) and the unconventional Enid, Mildred finds her first few months at Cackle’s a challenge, especially when it comes to casting spells, flying a broomstick, or dealing with an evil twin who threatens to destroy all they hold dear in the witches code.
As Miss Cackle (shades of Barbara Woodhouse of “walkies” fame) and her evil twin Agatha, Polly Lister proves to be a versatile scene-stealer, especially in their shape-shifting duet.
Danielle Bird is an excellent Mildred, whether essaying an awkward child, doing gymnastic contortions on a hoop suspended above ground, or crouching out of sight by the front stalls.
The band are also fun, especially the scatting Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler), and Consuela Rolle and Rosie Abraham add a bit of interest with Enid’s audience participation and Ethel’s nasty attitude and magic transformations.
Previous cast of The Worst Witch
This is a joyous and lively show with good musical numbers composed by Luke Potter, traditional basic magic tricks, and a simple yet versatile set by Simon Daw of platforms, ladders and mysterious items in jars. There’s also some clever puppetry to evoke the feline familiars essential to every young witch.
The Worst Witch continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 8 September and is directed by Theresa Heskins. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.
Hidden off Camden High Street is a former church which boasts a plaque reminding us of a public sewer running underneath, and this is the Theatro Technis, a laid-back venue with a friendly vibe.
I was invited to review Sushi Girls, the new play by Tony Leliw, a play described as a comedy about Japanese exchange students staying with a London family.
Rina Saito as Shizuko and Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika
Anton (based loosely on the writer), isn’t sure about foreign students, and refers to Ichika and Shizuko as “Itchy and Scratchy” before they arrive, assuming they will be quiet and polite. He slips into the Cockney idiom at times of stress.
Anna, the wife, is more pragmatic, thinking of the money they will bring in to their home. When the students arrive, Ichika seems stereotypically Japanese, wearing a kimono and bowing to her hosts, but Shizuko is spoiled, a brat in Gucci heels, dismissing both hosts and house and planning to spend her money on frivolities like a £900 ‘Golden Burger’ and tea at the Ritz.
Rina Saito as Shizuko, Kate Winder as Anna, Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika, Mark Keegan as Anton
With two sets side by side (dining room and students’ bedroom), a garden suggested by lighting and sound effects, and off-stage kitchen and bathroom, the staging makes the most of the floor space – although the pacing between scene changes needs to be tightened up a bit to keep things moving.
Act one has more than a hint of 70s sitcom in its culture clashes and stereotypes on both sides, Japanese and English. However the characters of the students are well-defined, and these are good leading roles for Rina Saito and Shina Shihoko Nagai.
Shina Shihoko Nagai and Rina Saito
In act two we follow Itchika’s fortunes when she decides to make a new life in England, and the play moves from the comic into the tragic – for me, a scene of mistaken identity didn’t work, but Nagai and Keegan excel in a King’s Cross plot which involves a mysterious man, a ball, a fight, a moment of reflection, and a touching song about a butterfly.
Sushi Girls isn’t quite what I expected, as the Cockney aspects of the student’s adoption of English is peripheral, and the growth of all the characters to accept and understand each other seems to transcend the comedy, but I enjoyed the piece, and was particularly struck by a bit of direction where a hug from one of the girls to the other was mirrored later on in a different context.
Ultimately, Sushi Girls is about friendship, family, and in its ending, just a little bit of fishy fantasy.
Sushi Girls ran at Theatro Technis from 25-27 July. Photo credits by Anna Lukanina.
Jane Austen’s Sanditon would seem to be a major draw at the moment, despite being left unfinished. Andrew Davies has written a version which will premiere on television in 2030, and then there is this preview of a new stage musical by Chris Brindle and Vicky Clubb.
Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace, we join Anna/Charlotte (Rebecca Huish) and her pop-rock band as a new idea is pitched to them, a concept album inspired by Jane Austen and her unfinished novel, Sanditon.
With a handful of excellent songs (especially Shallow, Opportunity and Nouveau Riche) and some excellent performances from Huish, director Angie Diggens with her fine harmonies, Amber Cayasso who raps and displays strength as a mixed-race woman of wealth in the 18th century, Elizabeth Brooks’s G&S vibe, Emily Bate’s period drama and William Hastings’s strong-voiced soundman, Sanditon shows a lot of potential, although the narration and pace of the second half still feels as if it needs a bit of work.
The band, including Clubb, Fern Teather, Sam Thurlow and Marcus Wood, work hard to convey a variety of styles from traditional pop to “pom pom” music hall, and Alex Terry adds a touch of the grotesque to his comedic characters.
I feel this musical may well expand to one with an interesting future, and it feels right as a small-scale actor-musician piece rather than a full West End production.
Last night’s one-off performance was professionally filmed so if you’re interested, you may be able to see it and make your own assessment. For both Austen fans and those open to new musical ideas, this was a definite hit, which also left the audience assessing how relevant Austen’s ideas and themes remain today.
The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).
In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.
While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.
The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.
The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).
Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.
The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.
The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.
This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.
The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.
You may remember the classic film The Maltese Falcon, in which Humphrey Bogart played hard-boiled ‘tec Sam Spade, who deals with a mystery package, a mysterious femme fatale, and a jovial “fat man”. That was one of the most entertaining film noirs of classic Hollywood.
The Falcon’s Malteser is based on the novel by Anthony Horowitz, in which the Diamond brothers Tim and Nick are in business to solve crimes, help clients, and get into scrapes. When one Johnny Naples visits them and leaves a mysterious package, a sequence of unlikely events is set into motion.
Tim (Matt Jopling) is endearingly dim, either presenting a vacant expression or facial contortions which evoke the spirit of Monty Python’s perennial policeman, the late Graham Chapman. In fact Fergus Woods Dunlop’s adaptation of the book is Pythonesque throughout, with silly set-ups, daft characterisations, some groan-enducing puns, and even the occasional explanatory song.
Nick (Sian Eleanor Green) is a talkative thirteen year-old who acts as our narrator (reliable or otherwise). In a beanie hat and a constant air of optimism, he is clearly the brains behind the outfit, and it seems almost a shame that he shared the original surname of “Simple” with his brother.
If you remember the Tennants Pilsner lager adverts with Vivian Stanshall’s narration, you’ll recognise the pastiche displayed in the characters of Horowitz’s “Fat Man” (a thin woman, who has only eaten yogurt for a year), and Himmel, a textbook assassin with a Germanic accent. The memory of Stanshall’s wordplay (“Have you got a light, mac? No, but I have a dark brown overcoat”) comes back at various points during The Falcon’s Malteser, which entertains with a parade of pulp fiction staple characters shared between two performers, Fergus Leathem and Samantha Sutherland.
If there is the occasional longeur during this 80-minute piece, the laughs and the filmic references (Lauren Bacardi!) more than make up for it, Lee Lyford and his cast pitch the silliness and segues perfectly, and Carl Davies’ set design (revolving doors, a window, a desk, a hatstand, a gravestone, a telephone, a gun) works well with the farcical pace. Even a missed discard of a prop adds to the fun.
The titular Maltesers prove something of a McGuffin, with the solution being attached to something much more prosaic (if scientific, as described by Nick’s science teacher, improbably discovered just at the right time). Still, this is light and entertaining fare, as sparkling as the Diamond brothers and the gems sought by the bad guys.
One word of warning, though, The Vaults does not have the best sight-lines in the world, so be prepared to bend your neck a bit and do head gymnastics to catch the action going on at floor level.
The Falcon’s Malteser continues at The Vaults Theatre until 25 August 2019. Photo credits Geraint Lewis.
In this post I’m going to reflect on what I’ve experienced since I relaunched loureviews.blog as a professional concern in January 2019.
This is my own personal viewpoint, based on my experiences over the past seven months.
A bit of background
I have previously built up my career as a professional librarian in academia, for the last four years of my career as a senior manager in a small but upcoming university.
It was a job I enjoyed, and had done well in, but issues with my mental health had caused me to step away from it, and eventually leave both the job and career path, by choice.
Without going into too much detail, I needed to find time and space to work on my own terms, and I am lucky enough to have saved enough money to allow me to do that for at least two or three years. I’m 47 years old now and it is time to do something for me, plus I have a husband heading into retirement in the not too distant future (who has been a brilliant rock thus far).
I have been reviewing theatre shows since 2011 and launched my current blog in January 2012.
I was part of the London Theatre Bloggers network at that time but was unable to take advantage of many of the opportunities on offer, due to work commitments. I attended theatre when I could at weekends, some evenings, but wasn’t as plugged in to the theatre scene as I would have liked. Leaving my paid job has allowed me to change all that.
Building the brand
I changed my Twitter name and my blog name to match each other, created a new profile, and upgraded my blog to become Premium.
I upgraded my Pinterest account to a Business one and started to redesign it and regularly share my blog posts to it.
I joined Instagram and upgraded to a Business account, posting every day.
My Facebook page has been active since 2014 and all posts are automatically uploaded to it, and I also add all posts to my personal Facebook page to be seen by everyone.
My LinkedIn page has been completely redesigned with a new profile and regular posts from my blog. It retains all my previous work experience and publications information.
My personal photo is the same across all my social media, and I now have business cards to support my blog and social media.
My heaviest use of social media is on Twitter, which is about 70% theatre-related and 30% other (cinema, local interest, politics). I have a list of theatres and shows that I follow, plus other bloggers, and regularly interact with them and retweet content.
Every show I see is reviewed, whether I have received a complimentary ticket, a discounted ticket, or have been unwise enough to pay full price.
To give you an idea of what my personal experience has been, so far this year I have paid over £3,000 on theatre tickets and have received around £600 worth of complimentary tickets.
I have started to utilise discount services such as TodayTix, lastminute.com, and there are also seat-filling agencies. I have also had to set myself a travel budget as travelling around the capital, even with an Oyster card, isn’t cheap.
My average spend on a theatre ticket works out for 2019 at £45: I would like to reduce this further for 2020.
Finding a niche
I am not a specialist in any particular type of theatre or arts – I review plays, musicals, dance, opera, music, exhibitions, and cinema. I attend West End shows and fringe shows, professional shows and amateur shows, revivals and new writing, gender-specific, queer, black theatre. However I have avoided immersive theatre, so far.
I have launched a number of occasional series on my blog which I intend to keep up – The Mix, which is a news round-up which started monthly but is currently running a bit behind; Fringe Focus, which will be as regular as possible; interviews and features on shows big or small (often those I cannot make a gap to see, but find interesting enough to run to raise awareness on); and my quarterly look-back at my own performance attendance.
More features and content are planned for 2020 and beyond.
Treating it as a job
My blog and related social media take around 4-5 hours of my time per day, on top of time attending performances (average 3 per week, more if I can).
Although it is not bringing in any money, it must be treated professionally for it to be taken seriously, to build trust with PR representatives and performers, and to increase its reach and visibility.
My email signature has my blog address, my Twitter, and my Linked In profile listed, and I hope I am always polite and interested in whatever interactions I have.
I also ensure I promote and mention shows I can’t see, but which sound interesting. My first love is the theatre business, after all.
For someone who is shy and socially awkward, this has been the hardest bit to learn. I must approach people to find new connections and opportunities, which means approaching PR, production companies, theatre creators and other bloggers to increase my network.
At the end of 2018 I was on three PR lists, now I am on twelve. Others have started following me on my social media spaces, which seems positive.
Perhaps in 2020 I will get on lists which represent the “big boys”, which would be nice for my pocket, but it’s far from essential. I’ve grown to love the fringe spaces and shows I have seen this year, and with over 250 theatres within London itself, there’s still a lot to see.
In 2020 I would like to have the opportunity to do some interviews in person, so we’ll see.
Setting realistic goals
My goals this year were to engage with more PR companies, see more shows, and increase my followers.
My more personal goals were to look after myself, increase my confidence (going out on my own, going/travelling to new places, handing out some cards), and to engage with others working in the same space.
I’d recommend anyone moving into blogging has an idea of what they would like to achieve, and a plan for how they can do it.
I have goals for next year which include getting my blog syndicated and having access to more opportunities, but I know I must work for that.
Saying no is also an important part of being a blogger – my strategy has been, no, sorry, I can’t fit in your show but if I like the sound of it, let’s have a chat about it and I’ll do a bit of promotion for you.
It’s also important for me to know my limits including evening shows, number of shows (two show days wipe me out) and where in London I can realistically travel outside matinee times.
Negotiating blogger etiquette
This is a big learning curve for me, as I am not sure whether I should contact PR companies or wait for them to find me (I’ve started doing the former, and they can only say no or ignore me, or maybe even say yes).
What level of social media engagement is the right one is also a minefield – I tend to be active on Twitter a couple of times a day, with several posts/retweets, but I don’t have a clear strategy about reposting my own content yet.
I’ve tried to reach out to other bloggers, who in the main are a friendly bunch, but one or two do shut you down if you’re not a ‘name’. That might have bothered me at one time, but it doesn’t now, and there are by far more friendly and supportive bloggers out there than not: an invaluable network of creatives.
Dealing with rejection
This is something all bloggers probably must deal with at some point, but it is still a tricky one.
I write for myself, primarily, in my own space, on my own blog. If someone only wants to give opportunities to specific publications or sites, or need to ‘pre-approve’ you, that’s fine (as I’ve already said, I’ll pay for a ticket and come and review anyway).
My writing credits speak for themselves, not just in blogging. Follow my Linked In link to see the articles, books and chapters I have written over the years. I’m not a novice, and I believe my writing is honest and valuable.
I think bloggers are just as valid as professional critics – perhaps more, as we are unpaid and do it for the love of the sector we’re in. But now and again, you’ll get the message that your brand and your blog just doesn’t cut it, and that’s OK.
Identifying new opportunities
This year has been a real voyage of discovery. Finding out the theatre and performance spaces in London has been interesting enough (Twitter, Instagram, and the londontheatremarathon project have been invaluable), but then finding shows, companies, and creators is a minefield.
Following other bloggers gives clues, as press releases are shared, detective work starts, and emails get sent out. I have a spreadsheet, of course (every former librarian loves a spreadsheet). I read The Stage. I subscribe to every London theatre’s mailing list (I think!) and follow them all on Twitter. I listen to podcasts, watch vlogs (I want to launch my own at some point), search across social media platforms and theatre news sites.
I try to challenge myself – this year I didn’t attend the Vaults Festival because I wasn’t familiar with the space, but now I am, and I’d like to go in 2020.
I can’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe as travelling that distance on my own is too scary at the moment, but I am attending some of the Camden Fringe, the Richmond Theatre Directors’ Festival, and did one show each in the CASA Festival and the LAMDA Summer Season student showcase.
If a theatre across London has a matinee performance, I do my best to see something there (if not this year, then next).
I’ve contributed to four crowdfunding projects for shows this year, and even if I cannot see those shows, I still post about them.
This is one of the most important things to me: many bloggers struggle with mental health issues, for example, and we support each other. We all have similar goals and want each other to get there. It doesn’t take much to say something nice, or get a message out to your followers.
Be nice to everyone: I learned that from my previous career when as a manager I helped a lot of people navigate and climb up the career ladder.
Now I’m finding my way (but not a beginner) in the blogging world, a new name in a crowded space, but I really want to be here, and stay here. So, I accept the help of others, and help them where I can.
Know your own worth
This goes for any facet of life, but as a blogger I know I’m good enough to find my niche, to find those opportunities, to be part of the London theatre scene.
If I meet my deadlines and my obligations, I’ve done my bit. If you’ve offered me a complimentary ticket, or an interview, or a product, then I expect you to stay in contract and deliver on your part of the bargain.
A lot of blogging admin is chasing emails, sending reminders, following up leads, but I do expect to be treated as a fellow professional, and I promise to reciprocate.
Back to Dalston at the weekend to review a show at the CASA Festival of Latin American Arts. Ladylike soundes intriguing, a dance piece based around the use of “chick” or “hen” to describe women, and taking a variety of dance and music styles from hip-hop to rumba.
The Ella Mensa Company first creates this piece in 2015, and it has been in evolution ever since. Four female dancers take to the floor, Anna Alvarez, Azara Meghie, Hsing Ya Wu, and Lucia Afonso.
A circle of chicken food marks the area where for the next 55 minutes their movements will challenge and expose issues relating to sexual consent, cultural and gender stereotyping, and even the audience gaze.
For me, some takeaway messages aside from the incredible athleticism of the dancers on display were around how women are regarded in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan and close environs, and how animal behaviour can also mimic behaviours such as attack, flirtation, assault and rutting.
Meghie in particular assumes a gender fluid role, inviting aggression and assuming dominance, but in more tender passages she is the rescuer of those in peril – the shopper who reveals a weakness for rope bondage, the yellow bird who mouths “help me” to the audience.
There are queer motifs, expressions of sisterhood, moments of vulnerability as the participants dress and undress each other, shackling one into a bright Brazilian headdress here that resembles a bird of paradise, unmasking another here in a flowing yellow dress.
In the Arcola’s Studio 1 we watch these women perform under flickering lights, pulsing music, and a simple black box staging. At times they interact with audience members by locking eyes or invading personal space, at others they sit back and watch each other’s routines and stories.
Ladylike is an unusual piece of dance storytelling which retains a powerful message around the role and assent of women in the Latin one, although of course many of these messages can be read universally. By using humour to push forward an uncomfortable set of facts, this piece in fact gains rather than loses its strength.
Ladylike played at Arcola Theatre from 16-20 July. The CASA Festival 2019 continues to 27 July, with theatre and dance at the Arcola and films at the Rio Cinema.
The Questors Student Group return to their Ealing home in Brandon Thomas’s classic farce, and it hasn’t lost any of its power to amuse since Victorian days.
Tony Sears in Charley’s Aunt
Against a simple set by Anjali Karadia which allows arches to act as quick escape routes both inside and out, the romantic plans of young Jack (Joshua Perry) and Charley (Bradley Peake) are carried out.
Their respective young ladies Kitty (Ruth Comerford) and Amy (Sunaina McCarthy) are coming to lunch, and Charley’s mysterious aunt from Brazil will be there to chaperone – or will she?
Bradley Peake, Tony Sears and Joshua Perry in Charley’s Aunt
When the mysterious aunt sends word of delay, penniless aristo friend of the boys, Lord Fancourt Babberley (a marvellous Tony Sears) is prevailed upon to impersonate her, with more fun and intrigue to come when both Jack’s father (Matthew Saldana) and Amy’s uncle (William Busby) arrive as unexpected guests.
Running across three acts and two intervals, the pace of Richard Gallagher’s production never lags, and both the timing and physical comedy (particular the bundling of the wiry Sears over furniture and through windows) is spot on.
Tony Sears in Charley’s Aunt
With the eventual appearance of two more ladies who cause even more of a puzzle (Jordan Fowler as the real aunt, and Julia Caldwell as her ward), not to mention the knowing disdain of butler Brackett (Jake Burman) we are set for the traditional happy ending after much rushing, running, and general messing about.
A sparkling evening. Charley’s Aunt ran at the Questors from 13-20 July.
This week is the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, and the Science Museum’s Summer of Space continues with this event – the screening of the ‘First Steps’ edition of Apollo 11, a film by Todd Douglas Miller, and a Q&A with astronaut Helen Sharman and veteran broadcaster James Burke.
The film itself is edited for maximum tension and excitement, with musical cues, split screens, cross-cutting and footage from launch, flight and landing of the historic mission. I wasn’t around in 1969 but my husband was a child at the time and remembers school projects, Airfix models and TV reconstructions of a time where space travel was seen as the future of mankind.
Sharman and Burke’s insights on space travel was engrossing, with the former discussing issues around her work on the British-Soviet programme in 1991, her intensive training, and the lack of fear felt by astronauts because of the need to trust the team around them, and the latter recalling the access he had to simulations and areas in Houston, the threat of nuclear attack during the Cold War, plus the first all-night TV broadcast on the day Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.
The future was discussed, too, with Manchester University’s recent breakthrough in nanotechnology which would cut costs of machine production and what can be achieved, and the likelihood of China reaching Mars while the Western nations concentrate on sorting out climate and pollution on Earth.
An interesting and focused evening, with, of course, great IMAX visuals.
A play on monogamous extra-marital infidelity sounded interesting, and the poster art intriguing, so off I went to Shepherds Bush Market to visit this long-time fringe survivor (check out the posters of past productions which are displayed in the outside courtyard).
Poster image for Rust
Rust starts with promise, an abstract set of piled-up pillows and vertically-hanging flourescent bulbs of various colours, and two characters we find out are Nadia (wife and mother) and Daniel (husband and father) discussing hard and soft limits of their physical attraction.
These thirty-somethings call themselves Mr and Mrs White to lease a flat, and every Monday they put their other lives aside to indulge their fantasy together of sex, 80s tunes, and rule-breaking.
Jon Foster as Daniel, Claire Lams as Nadia
Although I admired the performances of both Claire Lams and Jon Foster as( the couple trying to escape the normality of boredom, crime documentaries, takeaways and indifferent sex over a three-year period, I couldn’t warm to them.
There are some special moments in Kenny Emson’s play where the writing takes flight (a clock, a figure outside the window, a gift, a pillow fight), but I didn’t feel the tragedy and found Nadia ultimately shallow and selfish.
With a confusing and understated ending – I expected something more in the region of Last Tango in Paris or Oleanna, and felt a little frustrated that no explosion of violence came – Rust, for all its initial intrigue and earnest attempts to evoke the ennui of middle-aged surburban marriage, didn’t convince for me.
Claire Lams as Nadia
Eleanor Rhode directs with an eye for the best utlisation of the small space, with Max Johns and Jess Bernberg’s set and lighting design adding to the sense of passionate betrayal.
I just wanted something more subversive and challenging from the relationship on view, and that was never delivered.
Rust continues in the studio at the Bush Theatre until 27 July.
A trip to Barons Court to see a Sondheim musical in LAMDA’s Summer Season was just the ticket this week, although I regret that I missed the chance to see two student productions of Merrily We Roll Along (the Guildhall School presented it at their Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican earlier this month, and it passed me by).
William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay
Still, it is a musical I haven’t seen live at all, so I really looked forward to see what LAMDA’s graduating class had done with it.
Merrily We Roll Along was a failure on its first appearance, a rare misstep for Sondheim and director Hal Prince – over the years, though, many of its songs have had multiple recordings by major artists and regular revivals have made it an affectionately regarded, if minor musical.
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough
This “class of 2019” are a talented bunch – in leading roles we have Colm Gleeson (Frank, arrogance personified at the start, idealistic at the end), Sam Stafford (Charlie, sweet in Good Thing Going), Esme Scarborough (Mary, the glue that binds the Old Friends), Scarlett Courtney (Beth, spiky yet fragile in Not a Day Goes By), Chloe McClay (Gussie, the vamp) and Ryan Burch (Joe, whose plot trajectory is in reverse of Frank’s), and they are very good indeed.
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad
On the fringes in smaller parts are Stuart Thompson (who was awarded the Sondheim Society Performer of the Year for 2019), Liam King (fun as Beth’s southern dad), Mercedes Assad (a fiery TV anchor), and Olivia Le Anderson (the unfortunate Meg in the first scene).
Joshua Eldridge-Smith, Michael Kosko, Ell Potter (fun, briefly, as Charlie’s wife Evelyn), Ivan du Pontavice, and William Robinson form the rest of the company, all gifted in voice and movement.
Company of Merrily We Roll Along
Based on a 1930s play which used the same reverse chronology, Sondheim’s musical (and George Furth’s book) takes us from 1976 back to 1957, to see how the choices of Franklin Shephard shaped his life and made him the Hollywood success we see at the opening party.
Far more effective than a straightforward rise and fall story, it closes with perhaps the best-known song fron the production, It’s Our Time, which resonates both with the young characters we see here and the actors at the start of their careers.
Directed by Caroline Leslie, designed by Mila Sanders, and accompanied on solo piano and occasional percussion by Joe Beighton – all LAMDA staff members – this is an enjoyable piece which has its final performances today.
I look forward to seeing what this group of performers do in their future engagements.
One of the best things about having time, energy and opportunity to devote to exploring London theatre in 2019 is finding the small shows which sometimes fly under the radar from new companies.
One which caught my eye when it was first announced was Unchained Theatre’s Nine, which has its second and final performance tonight at the Drayton Arms in South Kensington.
Detail of poster image for Nine.
In its favour was a one-act structure which runs at a tightly executed forty minutes, with two performers on stage throughout. The stage is marked by white lines on the floor and one hanging light, with other areas of the ‘above a pub’ space like windowsills and corners also being utilised.
The women are nameless. We don’t know where they are (a prison, a mental hospital, their imagination?), why they are there, or what time period we are in. They dress identically in grey t-shirts and sweatpants, with bare feet.
Amy Whitrod Brown and Ana Luiza Ulsig
Is this a real scenario, or cosplay? Do these women know each other or are they imagining a companion? Is that really blood, or the red they smear on themselves ? Who are the oppressors who are invisible to us, who announce their presence only by knocks, flickering lights, and an air of menace?
Engaging with each other both physically (pushing, fighting) and mentally (a torrent of abuse here, a game of tell there, their own brand of emotional torture on each other), these women mirror each other in words and phrases, playing a game of survival which is at turns amusing, dark and eventually tender.
With talk of “being saved by a moonbeam” hinting at a world outside which may not be in conflict or apocalypse, Nine leaves an audience perplexed and provoked.
Coral Tarran makes a fine directing debut – she recently performed her comic one-woman show How I Became a Dominatrix Through Damn Lies and Statistics at the King’s Head.
The performers are Amy Whitrod Brown and Ana Luiza Ulsig, both effective and convincing in roles which require shape-shifting, toughness, and vulnerability.
Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Robert Holman’s stage trilogy comes to the screen, in a film released in selected cinemas from 19 July. I’m watching from an online screener on a smart TV, so almost get the full cinematic experience of this intimate staging writ large.
Open Palm Films was launched in 2016 by Drumgoole following the end of his tenure as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe. Making Noise Quietly is the first of five films to be completed, two others having already made their debuts at film festivals in the UK.
The film is split into three distinct sections, punctuated by solo piano. In part one, we’re in a wartime village, with chiming church bells, and the mundane issues which feature in everyday life. By the third part, we have gone through years of conflict, but see that the considerations and fears remain the same.
It is always a complex undertaking to transfer stage plays to the screen, and Making Noise Quietly has more of a feel of the BBC Screen Ones than a fully-fledged big-budget production; even with opened-out locations and naturalistic settings, the pacing and dialogue remains very theatrical. I don’t mind. I rather like the concept of filmed theatre, and some of Dromgoole’s set-ups are rather beautiful in their scope.
Part one, Being Friends, concerns the friendship between a Quaker consciencious objector and a homosexual artist, and how they come to understand each other alongside the background of missing sons, suspicion, and “honey still for tea”. Matthew Tennyson returns to the part he played at the Donmar, the fey Eric, and displays a compelling screen performance, with Luke Thompson finding some sympathy in the role of the “conchie”.
In the second part, Lost, we deal with loss and catastrophe in the Falklands War, in 1982, where a mother (Barbara Marten) is told of the death of her son in action. She’s very proud, resolute, and stoic – but this was the section which lost its way, just a little, for me. Perhaps it never takes flight or feels anything other than awkward.
Finally, in the third part which gives the film its title, we meet a steely German woman (Deborah Findlay) who has survived the camps forty years previously, and her interactions with a squaddie who has seen the devastation in the Falklands. It’s a powerful piece, and Findlay is good, even if we have seen similar characters and arguments on screen before.
The camera is almost voyeuristic across the film, sometimes settling back to show the main characters in deep focus, sometimes observing from unusual angles such as beneath a bicycle and behind a row of glasses, sometimes in long shot (the dots of land girls, running, quick cuts between faces and hands), but sometimes this is to the detriment of the piece, which should stand for itself.
Making Noise Quietly is a laudable attempt to open out a trilogy which is not without its problems and contradictions. In a film version it is sometimes more fitting to play with timelines and text than to be completely faithful to the source (think how different the multiple screen versions of Rattigan’s Seperate Tables have been).
This is a film with its full potential just out of reach, with nuggets of excellence. It makes the best of a trio of plays which already feel a little leaden and Dromgoole does his best to give them a lively screen treatment: he almost succeeds.
Making Noise Quietly is on a limited cinema release from 19 July. Photo credits – Open Palm Films.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s clever rock opera is now approaching its fiftieth birthday, and yet has lost none of its power as it depicts the last few days in the life of Jesus.
Ricardo Afonso as Judas
This production was first seen at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a couple of years ago, and has now come indoors with a new principal cast at the Barbican Theatre.
I’m very familiar with the 1973 film, the original concept recording, the 90s stage version (later filmed), and most recently, the arena version.
A pulsing score and thoughtful – if occasionally dated – lyrics bring the story to life, especially the tense relationship between a Jesus who loses confidence as the cult around him grows and a Judas who watches with concern and incredulity until he is compelled to betrayal for thirty pieces of silver.
Robert Tripolino as Jesus, Sallay Garnett as Mary
You know the plot. This production opens with a dancer who almost conjures a feel of black magic, before she is joined by the fervent followers. Judas and Jesus have to have the charisma and powerhouse vocals to carry both the drama and the music, and in Ricardo Afonso and Robert Tripolino those roles are more than adequately filled.
Utilising hand-held microphones which are sometimes passed from one character to another, sometimes used as plot props (bound in the hands of Jesus at trial, thrown down by Pilate, dropped with a long trail of red wire at the death of Judas), sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but it is a different approach to shackling main characters with radio mikes.
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar
Sallay Garnett’s Mary is the strong prostitute you would expect her to be, but I didn’t feel her vulnerability until the trial scenes. Matt Cardle’s Pilate,first seen smoking and crushing a beer can, exudes Roman bravado, but completely breaks under the realisation he’s been used just as much as Judas: his vocals are absolutely fine, too, especially in his final couple of lines.
Samuel Buttery as Herod
Also of note are Cavin Cornwall’s menacing and deep-voiced Caiaphas, Samuel Buttery’s drag queen Herod with his long eyelashes, gold cape, and air of genial menace, and Tim Newman’s Simon.
Tom Scutt’s design is deceptively simple – a platform, some arches, galleries for the band to play in and characters to observe from, some trees, and recurring cross motifs which are particularly effective in the temple scene.
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar
Timothy Sheader’s direction and Drew McOnie’s choreography perfectly complement the score, and although I missed the hand-held cameras that used to bring us close to the cruxifiction, there are new innovations I do like, and moments of closeness, clarity and even humour (the freeze frame of the Last Supper) that make this show as relevant as it has ever been.
Two images that stood out for me: Judas with silver paint on his hands after the betrayal, and Jesus being taken from the cross and removing his crown of thorns in a kind of tired and resigned resurrection.
This is an important revival of a modern classic. Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Barbican until 24 August, and if you’re so inclined, you can see the other Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals in London this summer, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, and Evita opening soon in Regent’s Park.
I’m very fond of theatre which utilises “found space”, whether it is as a pop-up venue or, as here, repurposing the stunning council chamber at County Hall which was once the centre of London’s local government.
Lewis Cope as Leonard Vole
This room has now been repurposed as the courtroom at the Old Bailey, where Leonard Vole (a fine performance from Lewis Cope), accused of murder, is brought to trial.
It begins with a rather hysterical sequence in which Vole is sentenced to death and executed before we find ourselves in the chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, combative defence lawyer (played by Simon Dutton, once seen on TV as Simon Templar, no less, some thirty years ago).
Simon Dutton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC
Agatha Christie’s work lends itself well to drama and theatrics, and once we are in the court (for £95 you can be a jury member, with a prime position) it feels as if we are really involved with the case.
Out to reach a guilty verdict on the accused is Mr Myers (a fine piece of work from Giles Taylor, who evokes memories of the late film actor Marius Goring).
Is Vole guilty, ot not? And what of his cold and mysterious German wife (Carolin Stoltz, who turns even a bit of throwaway business with a cigarette into a depiction of ennui and frustration).
Giles Taylor as Mr Myers QC
The judge in the case (the reliable Michael Cochrane), is in full ‘Crown Court’ mode with his address to the jury, benign tolerance and deft handling of his star QCs, and sense of justice. It’s an enjoyable performance.
Even knowing the verdict and ending (I’ve seen both film versions many times), I found the final scene very well acted by Dutton, Cope and Stoltz, and the atmosphere in the chamber was almost of an audience holding it breath.
The council chamber at London County Hall
If I changed one thing, I wouldn’t have incidental music during some points of the trial, but I liked the venue, the scene changes and the fine performances in the great Christie tradition.
Witness for the Prosecution continues at County Hall. I utilised TodayTix to get a heavily discounted ticket, but a range of options for seating are available, including galleries.
In the tiny theatre downstairs at Hampstead, it’s new balls please as Cash Cow tells the story of an ordinary couple who realise their young daughter (tellingly, never named) is a tennis prodigy.
Phoebe Pryce as Nina
Jonathan Livingstone and Phoebe Pryce navigate a script that utilises a short scene structure to move backward and forward in time: their child has cut them off for years and we slowly see how their pushing for her success, while disregarding her mental state and own wishes, engineered the break between them.
On a stage which resembles a tennis court in size and shape, with the use of a light strip around the performance area and piano music and light changes to separate the scenes, both Livingstone and Pryce do well with tonal changes that require them to move through a range of emotions, as well as playing their shadowed, monosyllabic daughter – her only words are yes, no and OK.
Phoebe Pryce as Nina
Cash Cow is a deftly performed piece which benefits greatly from the intimacy of a small space, and a running time of just 90 minutes. We feel we know this couple but slowly they reveal themselves as they really are, however much they protest that “it isn’t for the money, we just want her”.
In this Wimbledon fortnight, with teenagers playing at the top professional level, you do wonder about the lives of the children who put parties, boyfriends and even menstrual cycles on hold for the good of the game and their careers.
Jonathan Livingstone as Ade and Phoebe Pryce as Nina
Oli Forsyth has written a literate play here which throws up all kinds of questions about the rights of minors and fame by proxy. Katie Pesskin directs, Anna Reid designed the set and Ed Lewis the evocative sound design.
Cash Cow continues until the 20 July at Hampstead Downstairs.
A mystery boat trip from Embankment Pier for press, creatives and theatre folk yesterday took us to Battersea Power Station at the invitation of Paul Taylor-Mills and associates for the launch of London’s newest theatre, the Turbine.
With lots of hints as to location, the 200-seater space turns out to be in the new Circus West Village area, already full of places to eat and drink, and in the shadow of the iconic power station itself, being developed into three performance spaces of its own, due to open in 2021.
Battersea Power Station
As well as the theatre itself, the Turbine will have a pop-up cafe open during the day, and the creative programme will include new work, festivals such as MTFest (such a success at Taylor-Mills’ previous venue, The Other Palace), plus classic revivals given a contemporary spin.
Inaugural artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills
The Turbine has the financial support of producer Bill Kenwright, but it is Taylor-Mills’ ambition for it to be funded by one of its shows running “somewhere in the world” within five years.
We all know small theatres face issues the bigger ones might not even think about, but Taylor-Mills seems upbeat and confident about the chances of his new venture succeeding in this space – Battersea itself has changed massively in a short space of time, and the new Northern line extension is in planning.
The first production at the Turbine Theatre will be Harvey Fierstein’s play Torch Song, directed by Drew McOnie. With all tickets priced at £32 this feels an affordable destination for those travelling to Battersea, as well as the wealthy community based in the immediate environs.
The Turbine Theatre opens for business on 20 August, and will undoubtedly be an exciting addition to the London theatre scene.
The London transfer of the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan comes to St Martin’s Lane with lots of cheesy energy, chock-full of hits from Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine.
The rather thin plotline follows the young Gloria as she performs in her community, before growing up to catch the attention of Emilio, at this point playing weddings and the like with little success.
The company of On Your Feet
Although she sings “Anything for You” at her audition (complete with a section where all the other observers leave the stage, letting the young couple have their ‘love at first sight’ moment), the Machine is strictly Latino and pitched at that market.
Gloria’s home life consists of a mother who had performed, successfully, in Havana, now resenting her daughter’s ambition; a father sick with MS and mute except in flashbacks and one dream sequence where he gives his child advice; and a younger sister who isn’t sharply enough defined for us to get a sense of her.
Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan
With these is Consuelo, the tough grandma who also provides the comic relief as well as key support for Gloria as she builds her career. I liked her scenes, but it’s a trope we have seen so many times before, the helpful granny.
The music is good, and the production values are high in terms of lighting and effects – the set is mainly a series of sliding platforms to keep the action moving.
George Ioannides and Christie Prades as the Estefans
Act one closes with dancing in the stall aisles and “Conga”, before a pace change in the second half with Gloria’s road accident and rehabilitation. For me this slowed the pace too much for what has been marketed as a show which will get you “On Your Feet” and presumably keep you there!
As the Estefans have had a long and happy marriage, there’s nothing much to exploit there in the way of conflict, and other than their record label declining to support “Dr Beat” or put money into their albums, there’s little sense of the obstacles faces by a Latino group crossing over into a white market (other than a great joke about Sweden feeling like “a land of dancing cotton buds”).
Christie Prades and company of On Your Feet
For all the high energy of this piece, it is a jukebox musical with a sliver of story, and if you paid full price for your tickets you may feel a little disappointed. Look around for the many discounts available and you may feel you have more value for money.
Gloria Estefan is played by Christie Prades, who gets the singer’s mannerisms and vocal patterns just right. Emilio is George Ioannides, who did well with an underwritten role (and a slightly troublesome microphone). Madalena Alberto (who was in AspectsofLove earlier in the year) is Gloria’s mother, and Karen Mann is Consuelo.
On Your Feet continues at the London Coliseum. Tickets are available throughout the remainder of the run, but shop around for the best prices.
To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.
Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera
Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.
So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.
Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason
Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.
Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.
Lizzie Emery as Ivy
There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.
This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.
Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.
The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.
Romeo and Juliet sequence
Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).
Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.
Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.
Nigel Slater’s memoirs become a compelling stage production in this fine adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett. The late 1960s are evoked in the music we hear on arrival and in the design of Libby Watson (all kitchen tops, red toaster, old portable gramophone and yellow Aga) and the period choreography of director Jonnie Riordan.
Mixing a discovery of cookery with growing up, we see Nigel at nine and the relationship he has with his mum, an asthmatic in a floral dress, as they make jam tarts together (only with strawberry, blackcurrant or lemon curd). A moving sequence which is almost dreamlike in which boy and mother dance on the worktops to Charles Trenet’s La mer is complemented with the fun of a Top of the Form round in which “Mr Slater’s views on sweets” is the specialist subject.
So much here pulls back memories of the sixties and seventies – sharing sherbet fountains, the “magic ingredient – lard”, school cookery classes, and the awkwardness of the working dad and the stay-at-home mum. The cast give out bags of sweets for the audience to pick from in act one, with Walnut Whips taking pride of place in act two, the act of exploring the chocolate treat leading into Nigel’s first experiences as a voyeur.
Filloux-Bennett’s script deftly deals with the different emotional events in young Nigel’s life, culminating before the interval with the knowledge that “I knew that Father Christmas would not be coming”. Giles Cooper is simply marvellous as the young, precocious child who turns into a moody, then confident teenager dealing with a new force in the house and “Aunty Joan” with her food contests.
Stephen Ventura does well in an unsympathetic role as Dad, who copes badly with a son he cannot understand, even down to leaving him marshmallows each night to help communicate what he cannot say, while Lizzie Muncey’s Mum, physically weak but mentally strong, is well-defined as Nigel’s most enduring influence right up to the closing scene. Marie Lawrence brings her comic gifts to the hideous and over-painted Joan, who barges into the Slater household to cause havoc and discord.
Toast is a deeply reflective piece that will make you laugh (Nigel refers to Aunty Joan as “that baking bitch”), make you cry (that act one closer), and make you hungry (you get a whiff of glorious garlic mushrooms towards the end as Nigel builds his first signature dish). With the right mix of humour, cooking and pathos, this adaptation really is a winner.
You can catch Toast at The Other Palace until the 3 August. Book here.