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

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

Lexi Clare
Lexi Clare

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

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

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

Lexi Clare and Lucy Park
Lexi Clare and Lucy Park

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

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

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

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


Maiden Speech: Boses (Tristan Bates Theatre)

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

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

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

Publicity images for Boses
Publicity images for Boses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds (King’s Head)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Crow in Clouds
Laura Crow in Clouds

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

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

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

Kelli O’Hara (Cadogan Hall)

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

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

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

Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O’Hara

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUPERFAN: Nosedive (Barbican Centre, Pit)

Company of Nosedive

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

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

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

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

Company of Nosedive

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

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

Ellie, Kim and Pete: SUPERFAN

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

Nosedive will continue at the Barbican until 16 November. It is directed by Ellie Dubois and Pete Lannon and you can book at

Photo credits: Brian Hartley

Camden Street Art Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street art by Alice Pasquini
Street art by Alice Pasquini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux
Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux

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

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

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

Apphia Campbell
Apphia Campbell

Groan Ups (Vaudeville Theatre)

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

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

Cast of Groan Ups
Cast of Groan Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Reputation (The Other Palace, Studio)

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

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

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

Company of Reputation
Company of Reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits Donato.

The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes
Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney and the Old Girl (Park Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deeply intelligent play, Sydney and the Old Girl runs at the Park Theatre until 30 November. There are standing tickets still available and an in-person waiting list on the day – check for details.

Photo credits Pete Le May.

The Permanent Way (The Vaults)

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

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

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

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

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

Cast of The Permanent Way

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

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

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

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

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

Photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Preview: Under the Radar (interview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehearsals of Under the Radar
Rehearsals of Under the Radar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publicity image for Under the Radar

Publicity image for Under the Radar

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

Under the Radar is on at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham from 12 – 16 November, playing at 7.15pm and running for 70 minutes. You can purchase tickets at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mix: small space shows for 2020

This edition of The Mix brings you some news on shows coming to small spaces and stages across London in 2020. I’ll be updating as new season announcements come in. Small spaces are special as you can get close up to the show and the performers rather than peering through binoculars from what feels like another universe. So support them!

If I have missed your venue or show and you’d like it included, please let me know, and if you would like me to consider reviewing a production, please let me know by emailing Notice is always appreciated as I am a solo blogger and unlikely to be available at very short notice.

Union Theatre. Image used an example of small theatre space.
Union Theatre. Image used an example of small theatre space.

A – C


Mike Barlett’s Albion runs from 3 – 28 Feb, Jeremy O’Harris’s melodrama Daddy from 30 Mar – 9 May, and Beth Steel’s The House of Shades from 18 May – 27 Jun.


Beryl makes a spin back into the theatre from 14 Jan – 8 Feb, and Middle Child present The Canary and the Crow (“an electrifying piece of gig theatre”) from 16 Jan – 8 Feb.

Battersea Arts Centre

Following Going Global through the spring, planned productions include When It Breaks, It Burns (19 – 29 Feb), VR experience for two audience members at a time Unreal City (2 – 28 Mar), exploration of toxic masculinity Daughter (3 – 28 Mar), Rich Kids … a History of Shopping (14 Apr – 2 May), and nu-pop star Lucy McCormick’s immersive pop concert spectactular Life: Live! (19 – 30 May).


The Bunker sadly closes its doors in March 2020 due to planned redevelopment of the area. The Process (11 Jan – 1 Feb) will be performed in BSL and spoken English in a relaxed environment, and cross-arts show The Girl With Glitter in Her Eye will bring together female and LGBTQIA+ artists, “”fusing spoken word, original live music and exceptional performances to tell the story of a friendship complicated by the revelation of trauma” (12 – 27 Jan).

Bush Theatre

The High Table, by Temi Wilkey (8 Feb – 21 Mar) and Level Up, by Malachi Kirby (1 May – 6 Jun) have been announced for the main space, and Margaret Perry’s Collapsible (5 Feb – 14 Mar) for the studio.

Chiswick Playhouse

Formerly known as the Tabard. Great British Mysteries present 1599 from 21 – 25 Jan, The Scene (a festival of new writing) runs from 28 Jan – 1 Feb, and Karoline Leach’s Tryst shows from 5 – 29 Feb.


Russell Maliphant and company perform new dance showcase Maliphant Works 3 from 6 – 22 Feb, and Dead Poets Live tackles Emily Dickinson on 16 Feb.

D – F

Donmar Warehouse

Caryl Churchill’s play Far Away is revived from 6 Feb – 28 Mar.

Finborough Theatre

Athena Stevens’s play Scrounger runs from 7 Jan – 1 Feb, followed by Joseph Crilly’s “vicious black comedy” On McQuillan’s Hill from 4 – 29 Feb, and Michael Melski’s Hockey Mum. Hockey Dad from 31 Mar – 21 Apr.

G – I


From 27 Feb – 21 Mar, the intriguing Trainers: or the Brutal Unpleasant Atmosphere of This Most Disagreeable Season is on (“a queer futuristic adventure story about love, activism and training for a revolution”). Derek Walcott’s Oneros runs from 7 – 30 May, Valeria Luiselli’s adaptation of her novel Faces in the Crowd from 16 Jan – 8 Feb, and a new piece of work from Rosie Elnile, Prayer will show in the summer.

Greenwich Theatre

Splendid Productions present Dr Faustus on 17 Jan, Roan Theatre Company have Atrocity on 29 – Jan – 1 Feb, Louise Jameson directs political thriller Revenge from 6 – 8 Feb, and Lazarus present three production in their third season as Greenwich Theatre associate artists – Macbeth (26 Feb – 7 Mar), Hedda Gabler (25 Mar – 4 Apr), and Peter Pan (17 Jun – 4 Jul).

Hampstead Theatre

The world premiere of Al Blyth’s The Haystack is on from 31 Jan – 7 Mar.

J – L

Jermyn Street Theatre

A star-led season includes a Beckett Triple Bill directed by Trevor Nunn from 15 Jan – 8 Feb, a new black comedy The Dog Walker from 12 Feb – 7 Mar, Michael Pennington as Prospero in The Tempest from 11 Mar – 4 Apr, revivals of Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking (21 Apr – 16 May) and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (24 Jun – 18 Jul), and The Marriage of Alice B Toklas is on from 20 May – 20 Jun.

Kiln Theatre

Three shows have been announced: Pass Over, from 13 Feb – 21 Mar (written by Antoinette Nwandu and “inspired by Waiting for Godot and Exodus”); A Museum in Baghdad (by Hannah Khalil and co-presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company) from 22 Apr – 23 May; and The Glee Club (by Richard Cameron, “a poignant and hilarious comedy featuring hit songs”) from 4 – 27 Jun.

King’s Head

Ron Elisha’s Falling in Love Again (concerning Edward VIII and Marlene Dietrich) runs from 14 Jan – 8 Feb. Musical comedy The Six Wives of Henry VIII is on from 11 Feb – 7 Mar. Tom Wright’s love story Undetectable returns from 12 Feb – 7 Mar. Charle Entsies’s new play No Strings Attached runs from 14 Apr – 2 May, while opera and operetta are not forgotten with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe on from 12 Mar – 11 Apt, and Verdi’s Aida from 6 May – 6 Jun. For Queen and Country makes a stop on 29 – 30 Mar and 5 – 6 Apr, with Neil Summerville portraying Army Major turned drag queen Denis Rake.

Leicester Square Theatre

A couple of one-nighters in February, Anthony Bunko’s The Man Whose Hair Grew Black on the 1st, and Russian music and poetry piece Six Senses on the 4th, lead into the return of Frances Barber in The Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey’s Musik from 5 Feb – 1 Mar. In the Museum of Comedy, Harvey Greenfield is Running Late transfers from the Ediniburgh Fringe from 27 – 29 Feb.

Lion and Unicorn

Mad Wolf present Julius Caesar – in one act! They perform from 14 – 18 Jan.

Lyric Hammersmith

In the Main House, Faustus: That Damned Woman runs from 22 Jan – 22 Feb, a revival of Love, Love, Love (which “charts one couple’s journey forty years from the era of free love to the beginning of the 21st Century”) from 5 Mar – 4 Apr, and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Antigone: The Burial at Thebes is on from 18 Apr – 16 May.

In the Studio, productions geared to younger audiences run throughout the spring.

M – O

New Diorama

A new adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (adapted by Lulu Rackza and presented by Holy What) runs from 7 Jan – 1 Feb. Yorkshire Ripper drama The Incident Room transfers from the Edinburgh Fringe from 11 Feb – 14 Mar, while comedy Shorts and Socks Included runs from 31 Mar – 2 May. Physical theatre from The Pappy Show in Wait Til’ the End completes the season from 19 May – 6 Jun.

New Wimbledon Studio

After a run of events aimed at small children, In The Shadow of the Black Dog runs from 25 – 26 Feb, Guy: a New Musical (from the creators of The Marriage of Kim K) is on from 28 – 29 Feb, and Arrows & Traps Theatre bring The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde to the Studio from 23- 25 Mar. Another new musical, Berlin Girl, from Eastern Edge, runs from 22 – 25 Apr.

Old Red Lion

A pair of plays by Rosalind Blessed run in rep through January, Lullabies for the Lost and The Delights of Dogs and the Problem of People.


From 13 – 18 Jan, Maidens, Myths and Monsters marks the debut of Nikita Gill’s mythological world Great Goddesses on stage. The Glass Will Shatter runs from 21 Jan – 8 Feb, and interrogates faith, belonging and polarisation within the school system. Funny new Irish drama Flights is on from 11 – 29 Feb, 28 Feb has a quick stop-off form MANdemic: a Drag King Cabaret, Can I Help You is on from 3 – 21 Mar, triple monologue The Apologists from 3 – 8 Mar, and a new version of Volpone from 24 Mar – 11 Apr.

P – R

Park Theatre

In Park90, Shackleton and his Stowaway runs from 8 Jan – 1 Feb, Time and Tide (devloped through the Park’s Script Accelerator programme) runs from 5 – 29 Feb, comedy Corpse runs from 4 – 28 Mar, “poignant new drama” Never Not Once runs from 1 – 25 Apr, The Still Room is on from 29 Apr – 23 May, and comedy Burkas and Bacon Butties is on from 27 May – 20 Jun.

In Park200, Rags the Musical transfers from Manchester’s Hope Mill from 9 Jan – 8 Feb, Simon Callow’s translation of the play of La Cage Aux Folles is on from 12 Feb – 21 Mar, Clybourne Park runs from 25 Mar – 2 May, Brixton-set play A Place for We is on from 6 May – 6 Jun, and The Garden of Words (based on the anime from Makoto Shinkai/ CoMix Wave Films) closes the summer from 15 Jul – 15 Aug.

Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs

Miriam Battye’s Scenes with Girls (developed through a Royal Court Writers Group) runs from 15 Jan – 22 Feb, Sami Ibrahim’s two Palestians go dogging is on from 9 Apr – 9 May, Pablo Manzi’s A Fight Against from 20 May – 20 Jun “marks the English language debut of one of Chile’s most significant new voices”, Sarah Hanly’s Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks from 29 Jun – 11 Jul, and Jude Christian’s Nanjing (” a personal response to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking”) is on from 21 Jul – 1 Aug.

S – U

Soho Theatre

From 7 – 25 Jan, the London International Mime Festival presents Trygve Wakenshaw: Only Bones V1.4. In the Upstairs space, Alexis Gregory’s Sex/Crime (“a dark comic queer thriller”) runs from 21 Jan – 1 Feb. From 30 – Jan – 8 Feb in the Theatre, Jayde Adams performs her Edinburgh Fringe hit The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, followed from 25 Mar – 2 May by Chloe Moss’s new play Run Sister Run.

Southwark Playhouse

The war musical Operation Mincemeat returns following a successful run this year at the New Diorama (4 – 11 Jan, written and perfirmed by SpitLip). A new play by Sam Steiner, You Stupid Darkness, produced by Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth, runs from 16 Jan – 22 Feb.

Theatre Royal Stratford East

Five shows have been announced for 2020: The Gift (29 Jan – 15 Feb, written by Janice Okoh), I Think We Are Alone (25 Feb – 21 Mar, produced by Frantic Assembly), Welcome to Iran (18 Apr – 16 May, written by Nadia Fall), a “bold and brutal new production” of Oliver Twist (28 May – 6 Jun), and boxing drama Sucker Punch (19 Jun – 25 Jul, by Roy Williams).


Productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Great Gatsby are in planning.

Trafalgar Studios 2

Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean returns from 8 Jan – 1 Feb, following a previous sell-out, critically acclaimed run. Opera Undone perform their radical double-bill of Puccini’s Tosca and La Boheme from 5 Feb – 7 Mar, distilling the operas to an hour each.

Tristan Bates

Two productions have been announced: Turtles Don’t Like Plastic, which runs 11 – 12 Jan (“physical theatre, puppetry and clowning combine in this magical under-the-sea eco-adventure”); and Broken English, which runs 20 – 22 Jan (” a contemporary depiction on the journey of the English language, using performance poetry, physical theatre and traditional drama”).

V – X

The Vaults

The Vault Festival takes place between 28 January and 22 March. It will utilise four venues this year: The Vaults, Network Theatre, Vaulty Towers pub, and The Horse & Stables pub (which will be the base for an exclusive stage run by

Y – Z

Young Vic

Show announced here include Nora: A Doll’s House (6 Feb – 21 Mar, adapted from Ibsen by Stef Smith), Orfeus: A House Music Opera (14 Apr – 30 May, written by Nmon Ford), The Second Woman (June, a co-production with LIFT), Hamlet (6 Jul – 22 Aug, with Cush Jumbo), and Portia Coughlan (16 Sep – 31 Oct, with Ruth Negga).

Friendsical (Ashcroft Playhouse)

“No one told you life was gonna be this way”. So goes the theme tune of a thousand repeats since the Gellers, Bings, Tribbianis, Buffays and Greens left Central Perk.

Now in the final week of its 2019 tour, this parody musical, taking gentle aim at the characters and plotlines of long-running US sitcom Friends proves to be more successful in fits and starts than as a whole.

I’d expect a parody to take the inspiration and run with it, and the moments which hit that expectation do well. It isn’t just regurgitation or imitation, there needs to be something more: the huge coffee cups in Central Perk and the recurring steps out of the scene are a good start.

The portrayals of Ross (likeable dork, essayed well by Jamie-Lee Morgan), Chandler (eternal loser with mannerisms perfectly imitated by Thomas Mitchells), Monica (manaical cleaning and nervous energy from Sarah Goggin), Gunther (love-lorn and quietly sardonic, Duncan Burt) and Janice (of the braying laugh, Rebecca Withers) are definite highlights.

The songs by Miranda Lawson and Barrie Bignold are funny in fits and starts but the sound at the Ashcroft (which is also extremely chilly) felt a little muted and muddy, and some lyrics were lost.

A routine around Game Night, with buzzers, was amusing, and Ross and Rachel’s duet “You’re Over Me, When Were You Under Me?” plays well, but Joey’s comparison of seduction to ice cream just made me like him less.

You also need sn encyclopedic knowledge of the original show: if you do, you’ll recognise bits and pieces that will make you amused, but you may also long for the originals of some of the characters (Joey, in particular, just didn’t gel for me, despite Jordan Fox’s best efforts).

Friendsical is so called because it is a musical based on Friends, which is undoubtedly true – but I’m not sure that even with the character traits of the six friends and those on the periphery heightened just enough to send them up, this isn’t just a copy of some of the TV show’s best bits, with added song and dance.

With another Friends parody musical announced for the UK, and a 2020 return planned for Friendsical, this is a franchise that shows no sign of slowing down.

Now, where’s that remote? I wonder which vintage episode is on TV tonight?

Photos by Dale Wightman.

Great musical film stars

The BFI Southbank has a new season of film musicals running from October – January, which is accompanied by screenings across the country, at the Waterloo IMAX, and in the Mediatheque.

For several months I have been assembling a list of film musicals on my Letterboxd account, now numbering over 7,000 titles, of which I have seen approx 55%. I consider myself a huge fan of the genre, and have quite a wide definition of what a “musical” is.

This post will introduce you to fifty names you may wish to check out – I will not be talking about Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, but I will mention some names from the Golden Age of Cinema (1929-1969) from a range of studios, countries, and styles.

There are many more, and I wish you fun in your own voyage of discovery.

Child stars

Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green
From top left, clockwise: Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green, Deanna Durbin

Shirley Temple. Perhaps the ultimate movie moppet, Temple was a triple threat from a tot, singing, acting, and dancing. Avoid the colourised versions of her classic films, but The Little Princess is a good starting point.

Deanna Durbin. With an operatic singing voice, an earnest manner, and a liking for wearing boleros, Durbin was a teenage sensation, usually causing bother in the nicest of ways. Try Three Smart Girls.

Jane Withers. Once the highest grossing star at Fox, Withers was a cute little imp with a winning personality and a lot of pluck, who could handle comedy as expertly as a song. Meet Withers in Paddy O’Day.

Bobby Breen. An acquired taste for sure, but Breen headed up a number of films for RKO as a boy soprano. By sixteen he had left the screen but catch him in Rainbow on the River.

Mitzi Green. Starting on stage and in films at a young age with an old head, she had a knowing style when singing her songs, and could do impersonations as well. Have a look at Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.


Bing Crosby. You may well know Crosby from his many million-selling records, from his Christmas shows for TV, or that final duet with Bowie. But you can appreciate the king of the crooners in two goes at Anything Goes, for a start, first opposite the wonderful Ethel Merman, then the perky Mitzi Gaynor.

Rudy Vallee. The first modern “pop star” to gain a teen following, Vallee’s appeal may look quaint now, but he made an early impact in The Vagabond Lover, and held on in films for another forty years.

Dick Powell. Juvenile lead of numerous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s, often opposite dancer Ruby Keeler, Powell can be best appreciated in Gold Diggers of 1933 (showing on 1, 4 and 9 November at BFI Southbank) and later in life became a good actor in more hard-boiled fare.


Richard Tauber, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, Lily Pons, Grace Moore
From top left, clockwise, Richard Tauber, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Grace Moore, Lily Pons

Richard Tauber. Austrian-born tenor and actor who worked extensively in Britain. Well known for his recordings of romantic songs from the operatic canon, you can get an idea of his appeal in Heart’s Desire.

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Bracketed together due to their successful series of films at MGM, this pair were known as the “singing sweethearts” and hugely popular in the late 1930s. My favourite of their films is Sweethearts. Macdonald also worked well with Maurice Chevalier in the early 1930s: see Love Me Tonight, and Eddy had a hit opposite Rise Stevens in The Chocolate Soldier.

Lily Pons. Pons came from the Met Opera and although she appeared in just four films, displayed a winning personality and beautiful vocals. Try That Girl from Paris.

Grace Moore, the “Tennessee nightingale”, worked on Broadway and at the Met, and was the first opera diva to succeed on screen in the sound era. Have a look at When You’re in Love, where Moore also demonstrates a flair for comedy.

Torch singers

Helen Morgan. Although Morgan’s story was allegedly told on screen some years after her death, she is often unjustly passed over. A great actress as well as a singer, she can be seen at her best in Applause.

Romantic heroes

Ramon Navarro. Navarro had been a Latin lover in the silent era, but with a pleasant singing voice he transitioned well into the age of musicals. His films are rarely screened today, but still stand up well and retain their entertainment value. You can judge for yourself in Devil-May-Care.

John Boles. With a career of close to thirty years, Boles did well in early Hollywood musicals and transitioned into supporting roles. A veteran of stage and screen, he’s seen at his most effective in Rio Rita.

Musical comedy

Cicely Courtneidge, Wheeler and Woolsey, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova
From top left, clockwise, Cicely Courtneidge, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova, Wheeler and Woolsey

Cicely Courtneidge. Gangly and amusing, and quite the queen of British musical comedy in the 1930s, often playing opposite her husband Jack Hulbert. A hard working comedienne, she worked for years in both musical comedy and music hall before switching to non-muiscal roles later in life. There’s only one song in Me and Marlborough, but it’s delightful.

Wheeler and Woolsey. RKOs biggest money-spinners in the early talkies, musical comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey came from vaudeville into films when Rio Rita was brought to the screen, and were retained for a series of titles of variable quality, especially once their risque humour was curtailed after 1935. I would recommend starting with Diplomaniacs.

Marjorie White. A performer who shone brightly for a very short time, she gives a kick to any film she appears in, and was a vibrant screen personality. You may enjoy her in a supporting role in Sunny Side Up.

Judy Canova. Often seen as a country bumpkin character, she could sing, act, cavort and yodel. A major star for Poverty Row studio Republic, her films are always enjoyable and now and again she is allowed to showcase a song which isn’t purely there for comic effect. I liked her in Untamed Heiress.

The Lupino family. Whether Stanley, Barry, Wallace, Ida or Lupino Lane, this British family came from the stage to liven up early musical comedies, and Ida went on to star and direct in films in the US. Spot Lane in The Love Parade.


From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor
From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor

Marion Davies. Often derided theae days for her supposed inspiration for the terrible singer in Citizen Kane, she was not only a gifted comedian but also a fine singer who was often utilised badly in films which just didn’t suit her. I enjoyed her in The Floradora Girl.

Janet Gaynor. The sweetheart of the silent films moved seamlessly into talkies, despite having quite a thin voice. Personality won the day, and she also preceded Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. Have a look at Adorable.

Alice Faye. One of Fox’s most glamorous blondes, she shone in biopics and early musicals in which she was very much the focus. Try an early title from her career, 365 Days in Hollywood.

English stars

From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby
From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby

Jessie Matthews. One of the greatest pre-war stars, she moved effortlessly from the stage to screen in a run of ingenue roles. Later she appeared on American screens as the mother of tom thumb, but catch her at her peak in First a Girl, showing at the BFI Southbank on 12 December.

Gracie Fields. Our Gracie was one of the biggest earners of the 1930s and a huge worldwide success. Usually portraying working-class women with hearts of gold, she was far from glamorous but remained the “poor girl made good”. You can see her gift for comedy and sense her appeal in Sally in Our Alley. You can also see Queen of Hearts on 9 Nov at the BFI Southbank.

George Formby. With his ukulele, toothy grin, and “little stick of Blackpool rock”, he entertained pre-war and wartime audiences with a solid run of musical comedies. Always the same character, with slightly bawdy songs, he proved a brilliant entertainer at the time when the nation needed a laugh. Try Keep Your Seats, Please.

Dancers and ice-skaters

Sonja Henie. From the Olympics to the silver screen, impish Henje shone in a series of ice ballets. Try her first one, One in a Million.

Joan Crawford. Before her emotional dramas and horror flicks, she’d been a talented flapper and chorus girl. Have a look at this aspect of her work in Dancing Lady where she is partnered by none other than Fred Astaire.

Vera Hruba Ralston. Republic’s skater queen, who endured a lot of jibes because she was married to the boss of the studio, Herbert Yates. A vivacious and talented figure skater, she was the big earner for the biggest name on Poverty Row. Take a look at Lake Placid Serenade.

Ann Miller. Hitting the screen at just thirteen years old, she was the definition of a trouper, all teeth and legs and a dazzling presence on the dance floor. Catch her in Kiss Me Kate (almost literally, if you are watching in 3D, as you can at the BFI on 9 December).

Cyd Charisse. Astaire called her “beautiful dynamite” and I can only agree. At her best in a primarily dance role, she is unforgettable in Singin’ in the Rain and does well in Garbo’s old role in Silk Stockings.

Marge and Gower Champion. Marge has just celebrated her centenary, and she made a winning pair with her then husband during the 1950s, even reaching above the title status on a couple of titles. Their best work for me, though, was in supporting roles in Show Boat.


Rex Harrison. Known for his patter-singing, has to be on the list for his starring role as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role he created on the stage. You can see this film at BFI Imax on 11 November. He was also seen in the leading role in Doctor Dolittle.

Anthony Newley. A talented composer, performer and actor, he was even a formative influence on the young David Bowie. Also featured in Doctor Dolittle, he is showcased particularly well in Idol on Parade, and was fun in a Dickens musical on the screen, Mr Quilp.


Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis
Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis

Sandra Dee. Perhaps remembered now for the 50s prototype made fun of in Grease, she was a teen sensation as Tammy and Gidget, but her career declined in the 60s. I recommend I’d Rather Be Rich.

Connie Francis. Pop star of the 50s with a golden voice, she first made films as a vocal dubber for the likes of Tuesday Weld, but appeared on screen herself in a handful of films starting with Follow The Boys.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. This pair livened up a run of “beach movies” of variable quality during the 1950s. Always firmly tongue in cheek, and always fun, they can be enjoyed in any of their collaborations, although I quite like Beach Blanket Bingo.


From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel
From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel

Carmen Miranda. The sparkling “lady with the tutti-frutti” hat could hardly be contained on the screen, with a sunny and snappy personality. I enjoy watching her in The Gang’s All Here.

Carlos Gardel. The hero of the tango and a legend in Argentina, a singer of sentimental songs. A run of early talkies came to an end with his death in 1935, but the films are very entertaining and his voice is easy and charming. You might take a look at The Lights of Buenos Aires.

Marika Rokk. A Hungarian singer who gained huge prominence in Nazi Germany (and was likely to be a secret spy for the KGB), but continued to work in films into the early 1960s. A pretty and alluring coquette, she can be seen at her best in Hello, Janine!

Marlene Dietrich. A German in Hollywood, she came to fame in the iconic The Blue Angel then lit up many dramatic 1930s films with her exotic allure and deep-voiced vocals. My favourite remains Morocco.

Maurice Chevalier. Quite different to the traditional American musical leads, he brought Gallic charm and a cheeky wink to a range of early talkies, returning to US screens again in later life in Gigi. Catch him in style in The Merry Widow.


From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson
From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson

Sophie Tucker. The last “Red Hot Mama” worked steadily for years on stage but made rare screen appearances. This powerful singer’s early work is lost but she is in Broadway Melody of 1938, and with a new film just released about her, attention may start to be paid to her again.

Fanny Brice. You may know here from Barbra Streisand’s portrayal in Funny Girl, but the real Brice was a true vaudevillian, starting in the Ziegfeld Follies. To see her at her best on screen is difficult, but I like her work in Be Yourself.

Al Jolson. Forever immortalised for being the first performer to sing in a feature film, “Jolie”s style is almost too big to be contained on screen but he is undoubtedly up there with the greats. You have to start with The Jazz Singer.

Esther Williams. Hollywood’s “Princess Mermaid”. In a series of high-budget MGM pictures, Williams swam in proposterous water ballets which have to be seen to be believed. Her personality was sunny and her films were a perfect form of post-war escapism. Perhaps at her best in Bathing Beauty.

Confident women

From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie van Doren
From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Mamie van Doren, Jayne Mansfield

Mae West. Renowed for her quips, sexual confidence, and earthy writing, West is best appreciated in the pre-Code era before her wings were clipped and her films made more palatable to family audiences. Check her out in I’m No Angel.

Marilyn Monroe. A breathy blonde who needs little introduction, she starred in a range of films where she often sneaked in a song, as well as more traditional musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Jayne Mansfield. Often derided for her large bosoms and cartoon personality, Mansfield was in fact a clever manipulator of her short-lived fame. She is well known for some films around the birth of the rock ‘n roll era, but you can also catch her comic charm in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

Mamie van Doren. Often found in college and teen exploitation films, van Doren was a straight-talking sexpot who livens up even the most low-budget material. She is the last surviving blonde bombshell from the 1950s. Try Untamed Youth.

Soho Cinders (Charing Cross Theatre)

There have been many interpretations of the fairy tale of Cinderella: from Disney animation to dramatic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, from panto to porn. It is a rags to riches tale which retains a certain timelessness.

Soho Cinders, by Anthony Stiles and George Drewe, boasts a remarkable score which has sharply observed comedy and moments of extreme pathos in this edgy Cinderella of politics, money, the press and the requisite musical happy ending.

Luke Bayer and Millie O'Connell in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Millie O’Connell in Soho Cinders

Robbie (Luke Bayer) has lost his mother and is thrown unceremoniously into the street by his dreadful stepsisters (Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman), who claim ownership of both his flat and business – a launderette he runs with best friend and “Soho hag”, Velcro (Millie O’Connell). We’re in Old Compton Street, where there’s still a strip club, but places “that used to be no-go are now mixed”.

Needing both money and affection he responds to attention from a wealthy businessman (Chris Coleman) and a conflicted Mayoral candidate (Lewis Asquith), playing the former for company and falling in love with the latter. By the end of act one, when plotlines have led him, in a Prada suit, to a society function, Robbie is about to blow everyone’s world apart.

The Charing Cross traverse stage now seems to be a permanent feature, and works well for the big ensemble numbers and even quiet solo pieces. The balcony is used sparingly, and aside from a couple of questionable blocking decisions which affect sightlines, the stage is well utilised throughout with a simple but functional set by Justin Williams.

Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders

I have a reservation or two around the depiction of bisexuality, which seems rather simplistic, but the transposition of traditional Cinderella characters and tropes is cleverly subverted, with the closeted Lord something of a twisted Fairy Godmother, the ugly sisters wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame … like Gemma Collins”, and the politician standing for the Prince (right down to his name).

Bayer proves a superb Cinders, balancing an “out” cockyness with tender vulnerability, and his solo number “They Don’t Make Glass Slippers” was one of the vocal and emotional highlights of the piece. His easy chemistry with Asquith makes their hidden romance as “intimate strangers” believable, and he’s fun in scenes with O’Connell.

As the spurned fiancee of Prince, Tori Hargreaves constantly impresses, and her duet with O’Connell, “Let Him Go”, gives both characters a solid background and purpose. Hargreaves proves to be the good fairy who brings a sprinkle of happiness to all around her in true storytime style.

The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders
The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders

The narration, which sets up and describes each scene, works both for and against Soho Cinders: for when it supports the fairy tale conventions of “once upon a time”, but against when it either slows the action with interruptions or feels like a conceit for a work in progress. Ultimately I found it a distraction.

Soho Cinders is a satiric swipe at media speak, the fickleness of fame, and the truth of romance: songs like “It’s Hard To Tell” feel well-observed in this age of gender queerness, and “Spin” gives an insight into carefully-crafted media deception. However, it is the songs which slot into traditional musical style which get the audience humming along. “Who’s That Boy” and “You Shall Go To The Ball” are especially effective.

The musical may hsve tired slightly from its quick debut in 2011, but it is well-performed and directed (by Will Keith). The lighting by Jack Weir, with blue and pink walls of colour, is both pretty and clever, and adds to the vibrancy of its Soho setting.

Soho Cinders is a welcome addition to the London theatre scene and continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 21 December 2019. Book at

Photo credits Pamela Raith.

[BLANK] (Donmar Warehouse)

Clean Break’s new production is a new play by Alice Birch, focusing on women offenders, women’s prisons, and middle-class mendacity. It takes the testimonies of the forgotten and often misunderstood to develop an engrossing piece of theatre.

Maria Aberg directs an exceptional cast of sixteen women and girls, who inhabit characters who share their names. Several short scenes prove effective, disturbing, even distressing, especially as we watch the evolving storylines of Kate, Zainab, and Joanna.

Joanna in [BLANK]
Joanna in [BLANK]

Birch’s note in the programme mentions 100 scenes she has crafted, which can be brought together to created a different production each time. This Donmar production uses thirty of those scenes to develop a play, bringing voices to women lost in the system to drug addiction, mental illness, or pure devastation.

[BLANK] is full of honest questions and powerful set pieces, using a selection of spaces in Rosie Elnile’s set of boxes, cells, kitchens, ledges and doors. Video and lighting design (by Heta Multanen and Jess Bernberg resoectively), and sound design by Carolyn Downing bring stories and scenes into cohesion.

I felt the inclusion of child actors in some scenes very effective, as well as the dynamics of family relationships between adults: thieving addict and mother, desperate mother and calm grandma, daughter and mother prison survivors with nothing to say but “OK”.

Shona and Jackie in [BLANK]
Shona and Jackie in [BLANK]

We see the prison system in action, too: the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the use of “appropriate distance”, the failure of mental support. In one scene an inmate starts to make which sounds like a reasonable request but ends with her observation that every object is there to “harm her”.

There are scenes which rip out your heart, too. The mother who “can’t remember picking up the knife” but who will always remember her children as they looked, dead, after neighbours “reported cries of Mummy”. Jemima, a liaison officer ill-equipped for the bad news she has to deliver to a mother resigned to it. A daughter whose concern about her mother’s violent new boyfriend is shut down for “being a bitch”.

[BLANK] is a powerful piece which builds our perceptions and preconceptions before settling on a lengthy dinner party scene with a group of women who entertain drug dealers and justify the most repellent of crimes lightly, or as victimisation. Uncomfortable, yes, but necessary, and the closure of this scene is violent, and cathartic

Jemima and cast of [BLANK]
Jemima and cast of [BLANK]

The total effect of nearly two hours without a break of this sensory overload is to set audiences opposite a mirror of their own prejudices, asking whether incarceration is really the best way to deal with female criminals. Is taking their children away for the best (we see a young pregnant mother in one scene, a displaced teenager in another about to leave her foster home)?

[BLANK] continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 30 November. Although some scenes inevitably work better than others, I recommend you take a look.

Photo credits Helen Maybanks.

Beryl (Arcola Theatre, Studio 2)

The Arcola Theatre is the venue for the latest version of Maxine Peake’s play about the greatest British woman cyclist of the 20th century, Beryl Burton. She was at the top of her career for twenty-five years, and one of her records stood for half a century, and yet, you may not have heard of her.

Beryl sets out to redress this balance, of Beryl the athlete, the Yorkshire lass (from Morley, just outside Leeds), the wife, the mother. As well as her staggering cycling prowess, she survived a number of setbacks including rheumatic fever as a child, an irregular heartbeat, a car crash and several nasty track falls. Always, the incomporable Mrs Burton picked herself up and started over, with the motto “Smile if you lose, and laugh like hell if you win”.

Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl
Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl

Peake’s play runs a crisp ninety minutes and has many funny moments throughout, in the spirit of Northern humour: the likable and versatile cast start by depicting actors and then play a range of different characters throughout including Beryl herself as child and woman, nuns, nurses, priests, policemen, German hotel desk clerks, Beryl’s parents and her mother-in-law, schoolboys, lads in the office of Montague Burton, fellow cycling competitors, and much more.

Weaved between the moments of humour are elements of pathos and, by the end, when footage of the real Beryl Burton flashes on to the back wall of the stage, a moving tribute to one of the women who should have received far more celebration during her life (she died aged 58, in 1996). Peake’s background as an actor gives her insight into the demands and capabilities of the performers in the piece – and also to include asides which recognise them (“I’m being a bloke” / “Well, tone it down a bit”; “My agent told me light cycling was required”; “You’re playing Denise now”).

Marieke Audsley’s direction, Ed Ullyart’s set design, and Simon Bedwell’s lighting and video all bring the Arcola’s Studio 2 to life: from the static bikes and lit wheels which let us into the training through the moors, the punishing road races, and the battles on the track; to the playground where the young Beryl challenges herself in a ball game.

Jessica Duffield, Tom Lorcan, Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway in Beryl
Jessica Duffield, Tom Lorcan, Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway in Beryl

Music cues, too, are inspired, including bits of the Casualty and Mastermind theme tunes and songs like Rock Around The Clock and Bicycle Race. These both anchor the piece in the right time period, and lift moments of exposition about the intricacies of the sport; to be fair, though, there is a bit too much indulgence of rhubarb and rightly, time is called on it!

Jessica Duffield plays Beryl for most of the piece, and she’s convincing as the girl who builds on Gracie Fields-ish grit to push past her health issues and “make her mark”. Mark Conway’s matter-of-fact farmer and regal royal are fun; Annie Kirkman’s run of male and female cyphers lead into a fair depiction of Beryl’s cycling daughter, Denise (first seen as a baby doll coming into the world complete with cycling helmet). Tom Lorcan is touching as Charlie, who sees a core of steel in his wife and supports her every step of the way.

There’s a staggering real story behind all the levity. A tough lady, “the Yorkshire hausfrau”, who, without proper nutritionists (she drank rice pudding from a baby’s bottle) or coaches (her husband Charlie was her champion), broke record after record well into her forties. These included the most miles covered in a 12-hour stretch – she beat a man on that occasion, and the record stood until 2017.

Mark Conway and Jessica Duffield in Beryl
Mark Conway and Jessica Duffield in Beryl

Beryl is a lovely piece of theatre, an affectionate look at one of Yorkshire’s finest. It is set in a time when not only were women overlooked (no Olympic women’s cycling events until 1984) but cycling itself was seen as completely subservient to athletics. Beryl Burton herself turned down the change to turn professional early in her career but retained her determination by biking around Europe to try for titles and records. Just once the play suggests a less than superhuman endurance when she longs for “a couple of hours in bed on a Sunday” but otherwise her philosophy is always “no” when given advice.

The East Riding Theatre have done a fantastic job bringing this play to life. This version of Beryl was first presented at Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, having started life on the radio two years earlier. It is clearly a labour of love from Peake and has elements of her own performing style throughout.

Beryl continues at the Arcola Theatre until 16 November, and you can book at Photo credits: Alex Brenner.