Category Archives: theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray – C (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Fresh from a run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, this reworking of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel (one of four permutations using the same cast of four) comes to London with a female Dorian.

Helen Reuben as Dorian Gray. Photo credit Samuel Tsylor

Helen Reuben as Dorian Gray. Photo credit Samuel Taylor

While this works well with the dominant relationship between the beautiful and unspoiled Miss Gray and the dissolate Sir Henry, it doesn’t quite come off in the section concerning Sibyl Vane, the teenage actress Dorian promises to marry and then callously casts off.

Lesbian relationships were problematic at the time (see Anne Lister as one example, in the current TV series Gentleman Jack) and would have caused social ostracism, but there could have been no legal contract of matrimony, and Gray’s nickname of ‘Prince Charming’ makes little sense when she is a woman.

Set (portrait) designed by William Reynolds

Set (portrait) designed by William Reynolds

Basil Hallward’s infatuation with his artistic muse, though, is clearly indicated and the use of sound and light (floating microphones that echo and distort, bulbs that flicker and illuminate) is well done, as is the minimal set – two mirrors, one depicting the infamous painting which is represented by illuminated water, more red as the years progress; one depicting reality, with one moment where Dorian sees through her reflection right into her soul.

Wilde’s seminal queer text stands up to redefinition, and in turning Adrian Singleton to Adriana and Alan Campbell to Allie, it puts the female gaze centre stage. It may be gruesome to think of a young man taking a life of debauchery, but a young lady, with all her refinements and natural delicacy (in 19th century tradition) feels much worse.

I found all four performances (Richard Keighley’s Henry, Helen Reuben’s Dorian, Augustina Seymour’s Sibyl, Stanton Wright’s Basil) very strong, and although the ghostly narrative of unconnected words from characters on the fringes of the scene felt odd at first, they gained power as the piece progressed.

Other combinations in the quartet of plays allow Keightley and Seymour, and Reuben and Wright, to swap roles. Picture B, with a female Henry and male Sybil, sounds particularly intriguing, although really the play (or prose) is the thing.

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After Dark (Finborough Theatre)

A trip to Earl’s Court on a Sunday afternoon to see a play that hasn’t played in London for over a century?Why not?

Dion Boucicault, Irish actor and playwright, was famed for his melodramas with a touch of farce – London Assurance, for example – and also authored the saga of Rip van Winkle.

After Dark is not as well-known, but proves to have all the ingredients of the genre including an implausible storyline, pockets of over-acting where the text demands it, dastardly villains with questionable pasts, and even an appearance from Queen Victoria.

Jemima Watling and Toby Wynn Davies

Jemima Watling and Toby Wynn Davies

It opens at the dedication of the new Metropolitan Railway, and the arches which shaped the new tunnel became a variety of places from a posh garden and a mission to the haunts of the homeless and the stage of a music hall.

Blackmailers, baronets, insanity, the demon drink and the penal colonies all make an appearance alongside tunes like Burlington Bertie and Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy, while some interesting and quirky staging and lighting cues make the most of the small space (using torches to represent a train which rushes up the stairs in the seating bank works particularly well).

Atmospheric staging in After Dark

Atmospheric staging in After Dark

I enjoyed this piece which had particularly good performances from George (Jonathan Le Billon), Eliza (Jemima Watling), Dicey Morris (Victoria Jeffrey), Frank Dalton (Simon de Deney), and good comic turns from the lawyer (Toby Wynn Davies), the clerk (Tom Fyans), and the dreadfully shallow Rose (Jazz Sanders). The music is artfully arranged by Rosa Lennox and doesn’t hold up the action.

Rosa Lennox, Gabi King and Helen Potter as the good-time girls

Rosa Lennox, Gabi King and Helen Potter as the good-time girls

After Dark may not be a lost classic, but this revival is worth a look for its technical innovations, impossible coincidences, and relative rarity.

Jazz Sanders and Jemima Watling as Rose and Eliza

Jazz Sanders and Jemima Watling as Rose and Eliza

Phil Wilmott directs, Hannah Postlethwaite designs, and the play runs at the Finborough Theatre until 6 July. Photo credits Scott Rylander.


Operation Mincemeat (New Diorama Theatre)

Having grown up with the war film The Man That Never Was, I’m familiar with the basic facts of the operation which allowed British forces to hit back against the Nazi occupation by duping the enemy over Sicily.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Here, creative company SpitLip have created a musical about this very operation, which manages to be both irreverent (to the Germans, the British, and even a sole American airman) and respectful to those living through and lost in war.

Men play women (notably office secretary Hester, whose love letter is a small masterpiece, “why did we meet in the middle of a war … the roses miss you”), and women play men (a wonderful Montagu, all bluster and physical posturing, including top hat and high kick finale), but this company of five are adept at quick character metamorphosis throughout.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Charles Cholmondely is a geek who loves insects, a clumsy man whose limbs seem too large for his body, who dominates his scenes through his innate awkwardness. In two duets, one with the Montagu he idolises (“some were born to follow, but we were born to leave”), and one with young typist Jean, we see the measure of the man.

A Nazi jackboot song and dance heading up act two, a sleazy coroner who supplies bodies (“must have a head … must be a man”), a celebrity pathologist (music hall style), and even sultry club singer Velvet, all add to the colour of this accomplished show.

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

The design of the show (by Helen Coyston, Sherry Coenen and Dan Balfour) utilises hanging telephones, blocks, lighting cues, and a small band of three slightly off to the side. Operation Mincemeat, a mix of comedy and glam, “Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train”, is an absolute triumph.

SpitLip are three members of comedy troupe Kill The Beast (David Cumming’s Cholmondely, Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, and Zoe Roberts’ Bevan), with composer Felix Hagan.

They are joined here by Joe Malone (Hester, US airman) and Rory Furey-King (Jean, Velvet), with Ellen O’Reilly and Lewis Jenkins completing the band.

Set design of Operation Mincemeat

Set design of Operation Mincemeat

Everyone involved should be proud of this superlative show. It closes today, but surely has a future, as do SpitLip‘s musical creations: more please!


Fringe Focus – The Playground Theatre

Welcome to a new, occasional, feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.

The first of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Latimer Road in West London and to The Playground Theatre. I asked artistic directors Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate to answer some questions on this small and flexible space, which I visited earlier this year to see My Brother’s Keeper.

Interior of The Playground Theatre, via spacehive.com
Interior of The Playground Theatre, via spacehive.com

Interview with Anthony Biggs (AB) and Peter Tate (PT)

The Playground started life as a bus garage on an industrial estate. What made you see its potential?

AB: The building has a really wonderful atmosphere. Simon McBurney from Complicite commented on this when he worked here. The space is so unexpected and inviting. It is a place where artists instantly feel at home. There is no other theatre in the immediate area, and there is a large local audience base.

PT: I literally had a gut feeling when I walked into the empty space. I felt that the space was already creative and had a very good energy.

The programming has been very eclectic and challenging, yet accessible. What plans do you have to reach both the discerning and adventurous theatre-goer, and the North Kensington locals?

AB: We are positioned in a very diverse area, surrounded by expensive residential properties, large housing estates including Grenfell, commercial developments such as White City Place and Westfield, the Imperial College campus, Wormwood Scrubs prison. We have a huge potential audience on our doorstep and reaching out to them is our first priority as a local theatre.

PT: As you say our programming is eclectic. There are local issues that are a very strong thread through our community like the appalling Grenfell fire that brought our community together and wiped away whatever social divides existed. Last year we did two projects that were around this issue – Shirleymander based on Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress, who undertook social cleansing when she was leader of Westminster Council; and Dictating to the Estate, a verbatim piece based on the transcripts between residents of Grenfell and the council. We intend to bring the latter back next year in a fuller production.

What is the USP of The Playground Theatre?

AB: We aim to be the heart of our community, where artists and audiences can celebrate bold and imaginative storytelling from around the world.

PT: Work that challenges both the artists and consequently the audience, and that has a deep resonance to the world we live in now.

You have playing cards instead of traditional theatre tickets. Does this mean a trip to The Playground is a game of chance and adventure?

AB: Every time you step through the doors of The Playground, the space will be different. We actively programme work that will transform our space and give our audiences a new experience.

PT: One can never hope to please everyone, or even should attempt to. One has to commit to the work and do it fully, leaving no stone unturned.

The Paradise Circus at The Playground Theatre
The Paradise Circus at The Playground Theatre

What is in store for audiences over the next few years? Where do you see The Playground fitting into a crowded and diverse London fringe scene?

AB: We love collaborating, so expect to see shows mixing a range of art forms, from rap music to fine art, that defy traditional description. International stars will rub shoulders with local artists and members of our community to create exciting and diverse theatre. Expect stories that reflect all areas of our community, that celebrate our culture and tackle the big issues. However crowded the Fringe is, The Playground is unique because our local community is unique. We welcome all artists who want to create work with us, and we look forward to building relationships with friends in other theatres.

PT: Personally, as an audience member, I come to a place that has great possibility to transform, to challenge, to make people think. I believe we have a few productions in the next year that will do this.

The theatre doubles as rehearsal space – have your creatives and actors found the stage and room a fertile ground for inspiration and innovation?

AB: Many leading companies and artists have created work at The Playground. It feels like an engine room for creativity. The more open we are to innovation, the more exciting the theatre we create.

PT: I have had the building for twenty years and set it up as a creative hub for artists to explore the unique voice within each and every one of us. The space has inspired artists such as Simon McBurney, Rufus Norris, the Polish director Henryk Branowski, the Japanese director Hideki Noda, plus countless other artists both known and emerging.

As an audience member, you notice the frequent train sound as an additional aspect of The Playground sound space. Have you been able to utilise this as a positive force?

AB: It gives the space another dimension and seems to add rather than distract from performances. Unlike some theatres which have the trains running overhead, the tracks run behind The Playground so we get the sound without the vibration. It’s part of our lives and it is part of our community’s lives.

PT: I don’t think that we have consciously incorporated it, but accepted it for what it is – another ambient sound that exists in so many theatres that can’t afford total sound proofing.

What are the future plans for the cafe? It’s a really friendly place with free wi-fi and an interesting food and drink menu. What will make this a must for a foodie in the area?

AB: Our daily menu is created by The Grocer on Elgin, and the delicious cakes and brownies are made by Sally Clarke, both of whom are local businesses. We want to celebrate the rich and diverse culture of the area, and over the next few months we will be adding new dishes created by some of our wonderful local chefs. As a theatre café we often have play readings, discussions, parties etc happening in the space.

PT: It is an evolving process and we now manage it. The level of food has improved over the last few months by incorporating Sally Clarke’s cakes and quiches, and the food from The Grocer on Elgin. This has led to more customers, certainly during the day.

Finally, the theatre currently seeks financial support to keep evolving. What can audiences and creatives do to put this fab new theatre firmly on the map?

AB: The best way to support us is to come to The Playground, and encourage your friends and family too. You can engage with us on social media: we love to hear from you. If you have any spare time you can help us by volunteering as part of our front of house team, or perhaps on one of our many outreach projects with local community groups. Running a theatre is expensive and donations of any amount are always welcome. You can do this in person or via our website. We also run a membership scheme which gives you priority booking and access to special events. We are always keen to develop other ways of engaging with our community, and if you have an idea of how you can support us then please let us know.

PT: We are now garnering support for a lot of the outreach work that we do (which is led by my co-Artistic Director Anthony Biggs). By supporting us, as a theatre, the very important work that we are doing in our community will help us expand our current programmes in those areas – like the work we do with the survivors of Grenfell and the Well Read programme at St Charles Hospital’s psychiatric department.

Soldier On at The Playground Theatre
Soldier On at The Playground Theatre

My own observations on The Playground

I found The Playground an interesting and friendly space.

To find it from Latimer Road tube station, you have to walk past all the Grenfell memorials, and clearly this is an event which has had a major impact on the local community. Latimer Road itself is part residential, part industrial, and it is very exciting to find such a hub of creativity in an area which has traditionally lacked performance spaces.

The cafe itself is spacious, and as well as offering a range of food and drink options, also has free wifi and both indoor and outdoor seating. I could imagine this as a good local place to study, chat, or collaborate over a coffee or a glass of wine.

The theatre is an appealing room, which had seating in an L-shape configuration when I visited. Sightlines are generally very good, with well-raked rows, and seats are unreserved and fairly comfortable. Sound and lighting is excellent and the space is interesting and intimate for audiences.

As a new fringe theatre – it opened in autumn 2017, with a capacity of between 150 and 200 – it joins over 200 other theatre venues within Greater London and has been slowly building up its own niche over the last eighteen months. At the time of its opening, Anthony Biggs stated it “has the potential to be the Almeida of West London … where our audiences are challenged and entertained”.

It has a monthly community reading group, The Playground Readers, in the cafe. It hosts scratch nights and play readings, and has showcased work by Jonathan Lewis, Nina Conti, Jane Austen, Josie Spencer, and many more: plays, comedies, and musicals.

The next major production, from the 2 July, is a new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

I hope to be able to visit again in the near future to tell you more about The Playground’s adventurous programming.

You can reach The Playground Theatre in a variety of ways: https://theplaygroundtheatre.london is their website; they are on Twitter (@playgroundW10), Facebook (theplaygroundtheatre), Instagram (theplaygroundtheatre), and traditional email.

Doors into the performance space at The Playground Theatre. Via London Unattached.
Doors into the performance space at The Playground Theatre. Via London Unattached.
Exterior of The Playground Theatre.
Exterior of The Playground Theatre.

Death of a Salesman (Young Vic)

This much-lauded revival of Arthur Miller’s most performed play now has the Lomans as an African-American family resident in Brooklyn, and adds some snatches of melody to the tragic downward trajectory of Willy Loman, a salesman of over thirty years, once “well-liked” but now not even able to stay afloat on his commission.

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman

It’s been a Miller-heavy few months, with five plays revived in London this year: The American Clock and All My Sons at the Old Vic, The Price at the Wyndhams, The Crucible at The Yard, and now this.

While the Old Vic imported American stars to headline All My Sons, the Young Vic has cast Wendell Pierce (of Suits fame) as the titular salesman, and he is pathetic and terrifying in equal measure as the man whose grip on sanity is crumbling as his fortunes decline.

Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Sharon D Clarke, who I saw earlier in the year in Caroline, or Change, is the strength behind the marriage. Her Linda holds things together even if you can see each line of worry etched on her face as the days progress.

This is an accomplished performance, completely believeable, from her clear affection for her husband to her distain for his arrogant, diamond-hunting brother Ben (Joseph Mydell), who “walked out of the jungle at 21 … rich”.

Wendell Pierce, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Wendell Pierce, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Sons Biff (Arinze Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) have been raised to see themselves as better than everyone else, even if reality fails to bear this out. Biff, once a promising footballer and student, is a farmhand. Happy steals other people’s girlfriends to mask his own insecurity and lack of professional advancement.

Willy’s thoughts, dreams and memories are depicted through brighter lighting, freeze frames, and a sense of the unworldy. Ben, on his handful of appearances, is often on the stairs in an auditorium aisle, glowing like a hopeful beacon.

Wendell Pierce and Maggie Service in Death of a Salesman

Wendell Pierce and Maggie Service in Death of a Salesman

Even Willy’s father musician makes his appearance, and the woman buyer (Maggie Service) who lusts after the stockings Linda is reduced to mending is a peroxide caricature.

This is a true American tragedy, in which the Lomans have been lost as their neighbours, Charley (Trevor Cooper) and son Bernard (Ian Bonar), have prospered. Willy Loman and his sons have become an irrelevance in a country which promised them so much.

Wendell Pierce and Trevor Cooper in Death of a Salesman

Wendell Pierce and Trevor Cooper in Death of a Salesman

The design of the set, by Anna Fleischle, is all hanging props, windows, tables. There are clever touches where the balcony is used for a couple of scenes, and where Biff’s call to his mother is shown in silhouette, his body language communicating his declining confidence.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell direct this emotional roller-coaster of a play, still relevant after seventy years. After its run at the Young Vic to 13 July, it transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre from 24 October to 4 January.

Photo credits Brinkhoff Mogenburg.


The Importance of Being Earnest (Tabard Theatre)

Oscar Wilde’s most celebrated play comes to the tiny Tabard Theatre in Turnham Green, and it is a lot of fun as ever.

Kirsty Jackson and Samuel Oakes

Kirsty Jackson and Samuel Oakes

This is a shortened version (no “cake” for Gwendolen) with some more modern modifications (the “cab” rather than the “carriage”), and rather more giggling and physical scrapping than you’ll have seen in previous versions. I have to point out, that more than one of the cast stumble over some of those iconic lines, which is a shame.

The company of The Importance of Being Earnest

The company of The Importance of Being Earnest

To bring something fresh and new to Wilde means to take risks with the material – it doesn’t have to mean casting David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, but it should bring something different to the table, and adding a throwaway line after the iconic closer isn’t necessarily the way.

As Lady B, Non Vaughan-Thomas definitely channels the spirit of Edith Evans from the classic film version of Earnest, but with additional, and hilarious, face-pulling.

Tim Gibson. Melissa Knighton and Non Vaughan-Thomas

Tim Gibson. Melissa Knighton and Non Vaughan-Thomas

With a wide-eyed Gwendolen (Melissa Knighton, pleasingly haughty), and a juvenile giggler of an Algernon (Samuel Oakes), this version sometimes wanders into the sphere of farce, but Wilde’s clever wit always pulls it back.

As Jack, Tim Gibson mugs well but misses the stoic seriousness of the country gentleman, but Kirsty Jackson’s annoyingly imaginative and twittery Cecily is a delight.

Paul Foulds (in several small parts, laconic servants and officials), Dean Harris (as Chasuble) and Jo Ashe (as a Prism quivering with piety) round out the cast in a production directed by David Phipps-Davis and designed by Leah Sams.

Jo Ashe and Kirsty Jackson

Jo Ashe and Kirsty Jackson

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at this quirky and eccentric theatre until 23 June. Photos by Andreas Grieger.


This Island’s Mine (King’s Head Theatre)

Some revivals feel more relevant than others, and Philip Osment’s 1980s depiction of gay life in London certainly has 21st century echoes, with two hate crimes in the last week and calls within Birmingham schools to stop discussing homosexual relationships with pupils.

It’s 1988, Section 28 is in effect, newspapers are scaremongering about AIDS, and young Luke, seventeen, is wondering how to tell his mum that he fancies boys.

Jane Bertish, Theo Fraser Steele and company of This Island's Mine

Jane Bertish, Theo Fraser Steele and company of This Island’s Mine

Osment’s play flits across time, space and setting, utilising a lot of third person narration and a complex dramatic timeline to bring stories together.

With no clear dictate on sets, Ardent Theatre have created their own idea of a basic set and props, and let words and imagination do the rest: so we are in the school, the kitchen, the restaurant, the disco, the theatre, the ramshackle house, the estate, the armchair in the attic, the park, the airport, and the 70s pride march.

Connor Bannister as Luke

Connor Bannister as Luke

The actors, too, have more than one character to play in most cases, sometimes leaving the stage in one guise to reappear in the next scene as someone totally different. As the Q&A which followed the performance made clear, this required a lot of collaboration backstage between the actors to help with quick costume changes.

This Island’s Mine tells many stories – Martin (Luke’s uncle), Mark (a chef who gets fired due to hysteria about spreading disease), Marianne (Martin’s wife of convenience) and her partner Debbie (and Debbie’s young son Dave), Marianne’s father Stephen (implicated in the export of infected blood), Jody (black, with a secret of her own from America), Selwyn (Mark’s partner, actor, hassled by police), Miss Rosenblum (Martin’s landlady, lost wartime romance), and more.

Rachel Summers and Corey Montague-Sholay as Debbie and Dave

Rachel Summers and Corey Montague-Sholay as Debbie and Dave

This places heavy demands on both cast and director – and although Osment was able to have some input and see the first performance before his recent death, his involvement was not as close as it was in the original Gay Sweatshop production.

There’s a cat, too, who links Miss Rosenblum with the Russian princess she was once companion to. He’s a plot catalyst as well as a silent narrator to the house in which Luke sleeps his first dreams of love. He’s seen as a bundle of multicolored wool – a kind of rainbow Bagpuss.

Theo Fraser Steele and Connor Bannister as Martin and Luke

Theo Fraser Steele and Connor Bannister as Martin and Luke

Philip Wilson directs, but it was clear from the Q&A that this revival was a company creation, exploring both text and setting. Wilson created a timeline which tied together the dramatic events depicted with those which happened, historically, around them, taking the cue that Martin was born in 1950 and so would have been Luke’s age at the time of decriminalization of gay activity.

Eighteen characters, seven cast members. A timespan of over forty years. Uncomprehending fathers (Frank, Stephen), issues of age and race, unrequited love. Children growing and finding their feet (Luke, Dave). Key scenes from The Tempest, Caliban, Prospero.

Rachel Summers, Rebecca Todd, Jane Bertish,  Connor Bannister, Tom Ross-Williams, Corey Montague-Sholay Theo Fraser Steele and director Philip Wilson at the Q&A,

Rachel Summers, Rebecca Todd, Jane Bertish, Connor Bannister, Tom Ross-Williams, Corey Montague-Sholay Theo Fraser Steele and director Philip Wilson at the Q&A,

This is a pertinent revival from a talented group of actors and creatives. It was a privilege to watch them perform in this thought-provoking piece, and to hear their short discussion afterwards – the “jumble sale” of discarded costumes backstage, the need to project as the theatre “soaks up sound”, their own memories or knowledge of the reality of gay life in 1988.

This Island’s Mine ran at the King’s Head Theatre until 8 June. I saw the penultimate performance.

Production photo credits Mark Douet.


Education, Education, Education (Trafalgar Studios)

It’s 1997 and there’s a new Labour government. “Liberal Tory” Tony Blair, as PM, ushers in a new era of Cool Britannia, pledges an increase of spending for schools, and German teaching assistant Tobias starts his first day at a typical comprehensive.

The Wardrobe Ensemble of writer-actors have fully collaborated to put together this mix of satire, social comment, music cues and physical theatre.

As we take our seats to an eclectic 90s mix-tape (including that disco gem “Ooh Ah Just a Little Bit” from 1996’s Eurovision), we’re looking at a set of two doors, two noticeboards, and a ceiling where many of the tiles are missing or broken.

The optimism of head Hugh, a positive bag of nervous energy, the coiled aggression of Louise, the silly sweetness of Sue, the swagger of Tom, the bland amiability of Paul, teachers all in a system that has squeezed them dry, works well as we travel on a tour with Tobias.

The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Wardrobe Ensemble

Emily, the problem pupil trying to make a difference through peaceful protest, and the youngster who nurtures his Tamagotchi (the virtual pet which was all the rage back then), embody the children the comprehensive tries to nurture, but times are tough.

I loved the first half of this 75 minute piece, with surprising explosions of movement, and some barbed reflection on an election result we felt was so hopeful (it even led two of the teachers into frantic coitus spurred by the defeat of one Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo).

The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Wardrobe Ensemble

The comedy aspects flow with ease, and for those of us there back in the 90s we feel all the good and bad of those times coming back. Coursebooks at least fifteen years old. Grass growing through the brickwork. Take That splitting up. The UK winning Eurovision (“Katrina and the Waves. That song is a classic.”).

What doesn’t work so well, for me, is the attack on one of the teachers which leaves her bloody and confused, eventually spiralling out of control dressed as Ginger Spice – but saved by the castle of Camelot.

The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Wardrobe Ensemble

Camelot, of course, are the company behind the National Lottery. I don’t know if this is significant. We do hear about how the investment in education eventually imploded into school-academies sending begging letters to parents for bare necessities.

Pictures of the cast as children appear at the back of the set at strategic moments. Emily plays herself, it seems, with her own name: did she really set fire to another child’s eyebrows?

Education, Education, Education is an interesting play in which recorded music is essential, but it lacks the satirical bite I was hoping for. The ensemble are all exceptionally good, and the characters believable to anyone who had to be at school in those days.

The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Wardrobe Ensemble

Even the staff-room bickering mirrors the all-out fighting in Year 10 (5th year in my day, I think), and if you stretch a point, the sparring in Parliament which Tobias remarked upon as people “having to sit opposite each other”.

The music is “right on time” (to clumsily reference the Black Box song), and a nod to the hugely popular film Titanic is hilarious. I wanted more of the physical shenanigans, personally, but this is definitely worth a look, if only to celebrate the art of creative collaboration.

Education, Education, Education continues at Trafalgar Studios until 29 June. Photo credits James Bullimore and The Other Richard.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)

This new Celtic folk musical by Jethro Compton (who also directs) and Darren Clark is currently running in the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, with a cast of five actor-musicians bringing F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to life.

Benjamin Button is born to Roger and Mary in 1919, appearing as a fully-formed seventy year-old man asking his father for a smoke. He is represented by a decrepit puppet with spookily lifelike legs.

The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mother can’t cope and finds her end from the cliffs. Father hides his ageing son in the attic, confident he will die soon, but Benjamin gets younger, stronger and sharper by the day.

When an unlocked door gives the sixty year-old Benjamin the “little bit of life” he craves, he’s down the pub for “just beer”, meeting the barmaid, Elowen, who becomes the love of his life.

James Marlowe and company

James Marlowe and company

Weaving the story of “the backwards man” with the folk tradition, and a constant reminder of the days, minutes, seconds that have passed gives the piece heart and humour, and James Marlowe’s performance of a Benjamin who gets more youthful as those around him age – at 40 he is the same age as his wife, at 24 the same age as his son – is believable and touching.

The Cornwall sea is ever-present, with the cliffs, the ships, the walks, a letter in a bottle, a family tragedy, all taking place during Benjamin’s seven decades of life.

James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg

James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg

Space, too, with his assurance that a man will one day walk on the moon. And a white shawl, wore on a wedding day, to nurse children, to die in, to become the blanket for a baby in his last few days.

The small cast – as well as Marlowe, we have Matthew Burne, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg – evoke a variety of situations and characters (including two chains of events that change Benjamin’s life forever). The puppets of old Benjamin, his children, and the child Benjamin do not appear realistic, but nevertheless are full of life.

Joey Hickman

Joey Hickman

The lighting and smoke evoke the Cornish coast, and a broken clock reminds us of the vagaries of time. Stage and lighting design by Schonlatern, costumes by Cecilia Trano, and sound by Michael Woods all add to the effect.

At two and a half hours, this musical is a deeply engrossing, charming and moving piece of whimsical storytelling. A gem which will surely have a further life beyond this short run.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until the 8 June. Photo credits Jethro Compton Productions.


Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens (Union Theatre)

I slept on my review of this musical revival as I found it deeply moving in both its 30+ testimonies of lives cut short and the affirmation of “letting go” from those left behind.

Bill Russell’s sequence of poems and songs (set to music by Janet Hood and arranged here for piano – Henry Brennan- and cello – Pippa Mason) tells the stories of those lost to AIDS in the dark days of the 1980s.

The hedonist. The accountant who lapsed once. The caring nurse. The junkie. The Bible-basher. The shy boy welcomed home. The boy who went to New York for adventure.

The hemophiliac’s wife who lost her two children as well as her husband. The wife whose husband strayed and doomed them both. The lady who had a transfusion and found new friends stopped her feeling ashamed.

The diva with the camelia, veil and Mae West suggestion. The brother who was prevented from being buried with his lover until his sister intervened. The big spender.

The Vietnam vet who felt betrayed. The man who turned blame to hate. The sex worker who did naughty things. The girl who loved a boy in red.

Fraser Leigh Green and Matthew Grove in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Fraser Leigh Green and Matthew Grove in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

We meet these and more through the vignettes and the ten songs which punctuate them, notably My Brother Lived In San Francisco, I’m Holding On To You, I Don’t Do That Any More, and the closer Learning To Let Go (which had the cast breaking the fourth wall and made me tear up).

There is no plot as such, just each panel of the American memorial quilt being laid as the one in memoriam talks about their life. Set designer Justin Williams and lighting desigber Alex Musgrave have created a blank square space which becomes anywhere and everywhere, before settling into those memorial panels.

The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Ailsa Davidson in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Watching and waiting is the sister who helped her brother spend forever with the man he loved, until, eventually she lays down her square.

Originally called The Quilt, this show continues to resonate, and is raising money in support for Make a Difference, a charity which supports those still living with HIV and AIDS.

This is the second show with lyrics by Bill Russell I have seen this year (the first was Side Show). I am very glad I accepted the invite to reacquaint myself with this incredible show, and to experience yet another new venue.

The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

I won’t single out anyone in the wonderful cast, directed with such flair by Bryan Hodgson. They are – Fraser Leigh Green, Michael Janssens, Marcus Ayton, Calum Culvin, Aidan Harkins, Chris Cahill, Althea Burey, Jackie Pulford, Jade Marvin, Charlie McCullach, Ailsa Davidson, Jade Chaston, Rhys Taylor, Paice Fenlon, Kristine Kruse, and Matthew Grove. All actors to watch in the future.

Elegies continues until 8 June. Do go if you can to show your support. If you wish to make a donation to Make a Difference you can do so here.

Photo credits by Mark Senior.


All My Sons (Old Vic)

Over to Waterloo today for the fourth of five Arthur Miller plays showing in London this year, this time the family drama All My Sons.

A story of corruption and profiteering in wartime, we first meet Joe Keller (Bill Pullman) in his garden, with his neighbours Dr Bayliss (Sule Rimi) and Frank (Gunnar Cauthery). He’s an affable chap, pleasant enough, wealthy, with an average house.

Sally Field and Colin Morgan

Sally Field and Colin Morgan

Upstairs there’s a guest, Ann (Jenna Coleman, in her London stage debut after television success in Victoria). She was the girl next door and the sweetheart of the Keller family’s eldest son, lost in battle. Now she’s sought after by the other son, Chris (Colin Morgan), who has aspirations to move away and leave the family business.

Sally Field and Jenna Coleman

Sally Field and Jenna Coleman

The first half of this play is mostly scene-setting, with the wives of the neighbours chipping in, then we meet Kate Keller (the wonderful Sally Field), who lives each day in the vain hope that her lost son, Larry, will return. She even gets Frank to chart the horoscope of the day he died to prove it was “a favourable day”.

In the second half of the play, Ann’s brother George (Oliver Johnstone) visits, a coiled spring of nerves, hiding behind his father’s hat, fighting against his growing revulsion of the family who welcome him as a son, but who he blames for his family’s disgrace and his father’s incarceration.

Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman

Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman

Heading to raw revelations and family devastation, this play rips apart the pretence and bonhomie of years of neighbours living in close companionship and learning to be smart, not honest.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus a projection of distortion which hints of the distress to come.

Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan

Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan

Field’s performance is the major draw – I felt Pullman lacked the business toughness behind Keller’s jovial exterior, and I couldn’t always make out his lines even from the front stalls. Morgan and Coleman are good, too, plus Kayla Meikle as Mrs Bayliss.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus an opening projection of distortion which hints at the fracture and distress to come.

All My Sons continues at the Old Vic until the 8 June. Photo credits Johan Persson.


Man of La Mancha (London Coliseum)

In their tradition of star-led revivals of classic musicals, the ENO have now brought Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s Man of La Mancha back into London, with American theatre and TV star Kelsey Grammer in the lead.

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha

Although it is true that Grammer’s long runs in Cheers and Frasier have undoubtedly gained him fans in the UK, and his earlier musical forays into Big Fish (at The Other Palace) and A Christmas Carol (catch it annually, on TV) have proved a certain familiarity with the medium, some disquiet has been expressed with his stepping into the shoes of Placido Domingo, Richard Kiley, and, er, Peter O’Toole (although I liked him in the film) as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

With the big numbers The Impossible Dream, Man of La Mancha, and Dulcinea, quite a burden is placed on Grammer who is clearly an average singer at best: still, his charisma and acting ability carries the difficult role of Cervantes telling the story of a weak-minded man who tilts at windmills and thinks his destiny is “to right the unrightable wrong”.

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha

Kelsey Grammer and Cassidy Janson

The leading lady at this performance was Cassidy Janson, who I have seen before in Beautiful and Chess, and although she lacked a bit of the indignant fire brought to the role by Julia Migenes in the glorious album recording, she is effective at the “kitchen slut reeking with sweat” who eventually believes in that “impossible dream”, and she sings It’s All The Same well enough.

Add Peter Polycarpou (remember the original Bui-Doi in the 1989 Miss Saigon?) as devoted and comical Squire Sancho Panza, and Nicholas Lyndhurst (the Starkeeper from previous ENO production Carousel and long-time TV sitcom favourite) as a sinister leading prisoner and a drunken innkeeper, with a chorus of talented lesser roles, and you have a show worth watching, although it is in no way worth the top asking prices.

The company of Man of La Mancha

The company of Man of La Mancha

The opening, set in a jail pit reached by a lowered metal staircase, feels grim, but comes to life as Cervantes states “I will impersonate a man” and brings the tale of battle and chivalry to life to save his precious manuscript in a trial by his peers.

There are bits and pieces in this uneven musical that give away its age – the gang attack on Alonza is pretty horrible – but the score largely stands up, with moments of telling comedy in I’m Only Thinking Of Him and A Little Gossip, and effective orchestrations of those big numbers.

Cassidy Janson and company of Man of La Mancha

Cassidy Janson and company of Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha continues until 8 June, and is heavily discounting and offering upgrades if you’re tempted. For me I was glad to catch a fully-staged version (directed by Lonny Price) which at least tries to do justice to a musical which is often dismissed as a piece of history.

Photo credits Manual Harlan.


Vincent River (Trafalgar Studio 2)

Robert Chevara’s tense production of Philip Ridley’s Vincent River comes to the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2, and proves to be a shocking game of cat and mouse set against the backdrop of a hate-crime murder in Shoreditch Rise.

Anita (Louise Jameson) has moved from her previous home into a flat with just a few cardboard boxes and essentials (kettle, mirror, hotplate, cigarettes booze). There’s a sofa, covered by a tatty throw. The room is washed in pristine white.

She has a visitor, Davey (Thomas Mahy), a twitchy teenager who needs tranquilizers and who sports a black eye. He found the body – Anita’s son Vincent. Trading stories, the truth soon becomes darker than either could imagine.

This two-handed does not flinch from the unpleasant facts of life, although Anita’s denial of her dead son’s homosexuality is so engrained she recounts a long walk and unfamiliar bus journey to dispose of his collection of gay porn, to hide her shame.

Davey is hiding something, prowling the room like a dog about to attack; Anita does the same like a protective mama bear, at one point clutching Vincent’s school satchel, at another forcing Davey to smell the unwashed silk shirt her son wore on his next-to-last night alive.

As the secrets spill out, pool, and congeal, we see the sweaty sewing factory from which a pregnant Anita was ejected after an indiscretion with the boss’s son, after her workmates, envious, booby-trapped her workspace with pins.

We see the disused toilet block on the disused platform on the disused station which might be a shortcut, but which can only be reached through a gap in the barbed wire. We see Davey leading his girlfriend there to find the body, not his first trip, as he knows the train tracks, the broken glass, the cracked sink.

We see Anita’s mum dusting “mum’s cups”, bone china, delicate, three left now, two for gin, one part-broken, but proudly displayed back then.

We see Vincent, dressing well, confident, trusting. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong orientation. Wrong reaction. We see him dead, with a mouth-full of snow, broken glass, pools of blood. So much snow in that time between death and discovery, mirroring those white walls in Anita’s apartment.

Louise Jameson beautifully evokes a mum in crisis, her adored son the only constant in her life, her best friend, but yet she didn’t know him at all. Her eyes fill with the pain she’s keeping down, her voice occasionally rasps into devastation.

Thomas Mahy is one to watch. His Davey is a swaggering child built into a body hurt by his mum’s jibes about “disgusting queers”. He seeks Anita just as she seeks him, Vincent bringing them together then ripping them both apart for ever. Tender moments as he massages her feet, fun moments as they share a joint and giggle. Heartbreak.

This play is an intense 85 minutes, and from the front row I was close enough to see the spit, sweat and snot, and to smell the “gin” and “dope”. Be aware though if you are on the side nearest the exit you will not see most of Mahy’s final revelatory speech because of blocking: for me this made it more moving as I heard him but watched Jameson portray a mother collapsing mentally before us with each word.

An exceptional play, which deals with secrets, hate crime and regret. Photo credits Scott Rylander.


The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

From the writers of South Park amd Avenue Q comes this irreverent and long-running musical, which has been in residence in London since 2013.

After the jaunty opening number, “Hello”, which includes the Mormon brand of smiles, faith, and eternal optimism, Elders Price and Cunningham are paired up and sent on their mission to Uganda.

This is resolutely un-PC stuff – even before the men board the plane someone dresses up to “sing like an African” in the style of The Lion King, and in residence, the villagers have a song to cope with their famine, disease, and pedophilia, which translates as “F*** You, God”.

Jesus doesn’t escape, either, with his blonde ringlets and white robe, stopping off on the days between Crucifixion and Resurrection to leave the third instalment of the Bible with a doomed people in the USA.

With a glittery song and dance number for the gay Mormon leader and his henchman, and a very sexualised baptism, this show does not shy away from the intent to shock; and a liberal scattering of expletives of the f and c word varieties seems primed to offend.

Still, this is very funny stuff, and in the leading Elders it has men you can root for – Price is self-centred and obsessed with Orlando, Cunningham is a sci-fi fanatic whose interpretation of the titular book stretches to including hobbits, the Starship Enterprise, and a tall tale involving the healing property of frogs.

The songs are all set to Broadway-style tunes, and range from solos for Price (“Mostly Me” and “I Believe”), Cunningham (“Man Up”) and the African girl whose name gets mangled as Jon Bon Jovi, Nutella, Neutrogena and No Deal Brexit (“Salt Lake City”) to the big ensemble numbers and even a show within a show (shades of Tuptim’s effort in The King and I).

If you are not easily offended, this show is a comic riot, well-performed and unapologetically filthy. The orchestra works hard, and the set design, although deceptively simple, manages to bring together a host of locations, including a bad taste version of Hell.

The Book of Mormon continues to run at the Prince of Wales. Judging by the enthusiastic reception it received at yesterday’s show, it won’t be closing any time soon.

Photo credits Johan Persson.


Rutherford and Son (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Given the fact that the National Theatre’s next season has few female writers, it is good to see this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 family drama, set in the industrial North Country.

Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell.

Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell.

The Rutherfords are the wealthiest family in the town, factory owners and major employers. Mr Rutherford (Roger Allam) is a widower with three grown children: Richard (Harry Hepple), a curate; Janet (Justine Mitchell), a spinster of 36; and John (Sam Troughton), a nervous consumptive who married low and has a sickly baby son.

With them live Miss Rutherford (Barbara Marten), a moral force of repression, and maid Susan – never seen. Mr Rutherford’s right-hand man at work is Martin (Joe Armstrong), with a quarter-century of service, a plain man who holds his place in high regard.

Joe Armstrong.

Joe Armstrong.

At the opening of the play there’s heavy rain across the drab setting of the Rutherfords’ dining room cum office. Mary (Anjana Vasan), five years married to John and three months resident in the house, is still a stranger there.

Mr Rutherford, referred to by his son as “The Guvnor” rules his house with terror and bullying, repressing his daughter and mocking his sons, while maintaining the family business is destined for John. When John reveals he has developed a new formula to revolutionise the glass-works, father sets a downward spiral in motion.

Sam Troughton.

Sam Troughton.

With a haunting choir of six (oddly only four are credited in the programme), the scenes are set and bookended by quaintly chosen folk songs, and at the close of the second half the National’s revolve comes into play to good effect as the next heir to Rutherford’s fortune becomes the sole focus of attention.

Sowerby’s prose, inspired by first-hand experience, still feels fresh and relevant today, with themes of family, love, ambition, and business tricks. It’s a knowing portrait of a family whose head sees as above all others, but whose children feel awkward in their privilege.

Anjana Vasan.

Anjana Vasan.

It’s telling that the business passes purely through the male line – at no point was Janet, bright, independent and resolute (“when I take off your boots, I wish you dead”) ever considered, nor was her aunt before her. And it is the strength of a woman which ultimately saves the family line through a detached business deal. No room for sentiment in these dark times.

Directed by Polly Findlay, and designed in a style evocative of the period by Lizzie Clachan, Rutherford and Son is a classy revival of a modern classic.

Anjana Vasan.

Anjana Vasan.

Currently running at 2hr 45 with one interval after 55 minutes, this play at no time feels forced or dragged out. It would be interesting to see Sowerby’s other work revived for a new audience.

Rutherford and Son opens at the National Theatre on 28 May.

Photo credits Johan Persson.


Admissions (Trafalgar Studio 1)

This transfer of Joshua Harmon’s play from New York seems timely with the recent court cases around well-heeled parents paying for their offspring to attend the right college.

Sherri (Alex Kingston) is Head of Admissions at a school where her % of diverse students is ever rising. As someone who worked in the academy for a long time, quotas, inclusion and additional support for minorities is a concern in the UK, too, so this play might click with audiences here.

Alex Kingston and Andrew Woodall

Alex Kingston and Andrew Woodall

Husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) is the head of the school and their son Charlie (Ben Edelman) has been obsessed with Yale since he watched the film Mystic Pizza as a child.

The trouble is, his best friend Perry, a mixed-race boy who passes as white, gets in where Charlie does not. We never see Perry or his black father, Don, a tutor who has been overlooked for promotion, but we do meet his mother, (Sarah Hadland) best friend of Stella.

Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland

Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland

Moving across a brisk hundred minutes from concerns of representation in the school brochure (nicely comic scenes between Kingston and Margot Leicester) to white privilege and access to the right colleges and networks, Admissions didn’t quite work for me.

Charlie’s initial outburst is incoherent and overplayed, although the character settles in later scenes. Despite the subject matter relating to Blacks, Asians and Hispanics, the cast is resolutely white: it would have been nice to see a scene in Perry’s house, or in the cafe where the student integration is staged.

Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall, Ben Edelman

Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall, Ben Edelman

Under the direction of Daniel Aukin, this play doesn’t always take flight but there is maximum use made of Paul Wills’s utilitarian set, all pristine and glossy white, with the passage of time indicated in projected months throughout.

Photo credits: Johan Persson. Admissions closes at the Trafalgar Studios on 25 May and transfers to Richmond Theatre.


Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs) (Lyric Hammersmith)

Kneehigh have returned with this pitch black musical based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and it is everything you might expect from the company – loud, rude, quirky, and extremely professional.

The company of Dead Dog in a Suitcase

The company of Dead Dog in a Suitcase

Macheath (or Heathcliff Keith Macheath in this version) is a killer for hire, and we see him rub out an opponent of the Peachums in the race for Mayor, as well as the man’s dog.

He’s got the daughter of the police chief, petty criminal Lucy Lockit, pregnant, and he marries sweet Polly Peachum, heir to the fortune of her conniving parents.

Mrs Peachum and Macheath

Mrs Peachum and Macheath

The National Theatre put on a production of The Threepenny Opera in 2016, which was the Brecht-Weill play with songs based on Gay’s original. Dead Dog In A Suitcase boasts a script by Carl Grose and music by Charles Hazlewood.

Kneehigh have blended physical theatre, songs, puppets (from the Little Angel workshop), humour, actor-musicians and profanity into a knock-out show for contemporary times.

In a complex set by Michael Vale with includes a climbing frame, stairs, platforms and a slide, scenes can change quickly and the most use can be made of the stage, with mime, lighting and sound effects evoking anything from a jail cell to a lonely pier at night.

Macheath and Mr Punch

Macheath and Mr Punch

With a Punch and Judy show, some song snippets set to the tune of Greensleeves, red handkerchiefs to denote blood, and constant swapping of suitcases so we never know where the titular Dead Dog is, this show is frenetic, very funny, and borderline disturbing.

In the cast, Dominic Marsh is good as the ever-watchful and sharp-suited Macheath, Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania are excellent as the nasty Peachums, and Angela Hardie and Beverly Rudd are effective as Polly and Lucy – girls who have to get tough to survive in their town.

Mrs Peachum

Mrs Peachum

Long-time Kneehigh member Patrycja Kujawska plays the widow Goodman and the violin, while Giles King is both an obsessional and psychotic kilted Lockit and a kinky boots-wearing good-time girl. Georgia Frost plays a variety of roles including the decent henchman Filch and the unfortunate jailer Terry.

This show may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it clever, subversive and very relevant to where the world is heading right now. Writer Carl Grose and director Mike Shepherd both allude to this in their programme notes, as well as giving a hint of where this artist-led company gets its ideas.

Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs) is currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith until the 15 June. The show is co-produced by Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.

Photo credits – Steve Tanner.

For details on the show and to book for London, Exeter, Cheltenham or Bristol go to the Kneehigh website.


King Hedley II (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)

A lengthy revival of August Wilson’s depiction of African-American life in mid-80s America reaches its second preview at Stratford East, directed by Nadia Fall.

Although much has been made of the debut of Lenny Henry at this venue, he’s only one part of a core cast of six, who portray family and friends with secrets, resentments, and faith.

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

With a tendency to light character revelations as if they are monologues, King Hedley II can both run the risk of taking an audience out of the moment, and drawing them in deeper to the tragedy which slowly unfolds.

Martina Laird, last seen by me in a gender-swap The Taming of the Shrew in 2016, plays Ruby, a former band singer who gave up her son, King (Aaron Pierre), to her sister, and had her lover blasted to death by the man who has courted her on and off for 37 years. Her life is as heavy as can be but she still brings a girlish lightness to the part.

Martina Laird and Lenny Henry in rehearsal for King Hedley II

Martina Laird and Lenny Henry in rehearsal for King Hedley II

He’s Elmore, a gambling crook and a sharp-suited ageing Romeo. Lenny Henry plays the role well, easily commanding the stage in his early scenes, and crumbling apart as his veneer of bravado finally cracks open.

Next door is the God-fearing Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who has hundreds of newspapers piled high in his house, visible at each window, perusing them each day because “you need to know”.

Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre in rehearsal for King Hedley II

Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre in rehearsal for King Hedley II

King wants to emulate his father, Hedley, who killed a man with a machete. His destiny is to be somebody, although he’s killed for being called a champ and being ripped open with a razor. With friend Mister (Dexter Flanders), a loser whose wife has walked out and who dresses scrappily, he talks about money and settling scores.

Wilson’s passages recalling the murders were very well directed and performed by all concerned, and rightly full of realistic detail – we visualise the man trapped in the phone booth with terror in his eyes; we see the skull fragment shoot across the barber shop; we are with the woman who recognises her beau by all that is left of his face at the morgue.

Lenny Henry in the trailer for King Hedley II

Lenny Henry in the trailer for King Hedley II

Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) is thirty-five and pregnant, but she’s already a grandmother by her grown-up daughter who trawls bars for men “to lay down with”. She sees no future but a man in prison and a child on a slab, yet she still walks in bright red lipstick and heels as though she’s searching for something.

Music choices for scene changes and backing work well in this production, all female-led and underlining the action we have seen or are about to. At key points Ruby, Elmore and Tanya also sing snatches of tunes which fit with the general plot.

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

The staging, too, by Peter McKintosh: the first thing we see is a transparent curtain with news items about Reagan, then two houses with an alleyway, a fence, and a patch of dirt where King wants to grow flowers.

King Hedley II is a modern tragedy, but not without humour. At the moment it is running 3 hr 40 including interval, not the 3 hr noted in the programme, so a pick-up of pace, some trimming, or an earlier start might help those with half an eye on their transport home.

Give this neglected play your attention, though, and you’ll find a modern classic with both the power to make you smile, and to shock you at the climax of the final act.

Photo credits Sharron Wallace and Simon Annand.


Side Show (Questors Playhouse)

The story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, sold to a side show as children but longing for normal lives, might not seem obvious material for a musical, but it works quite well here.

Victoria Jones and Sarah Lister in Side Show. Photo credit Stephen Brooks.

Victoria Jones and Sarah Lister in Side Show. Photo credit Stephen Brooks.

GLOC, an amateur theatre company based in Greenford, perform one large-scale musical a year, usually something that has been neglected – indeed there has only been one professional production of Side Show in the UK, at the Southwark Playhouse three years ago.

I first became aware of the Hilton sisters in the 1990s, when I saw them in the Tod Browning Hollywood film, Freaks. Despite the title, and the fact the film was banned for many years, it actually presents its cast of actors with disabilities and differences with some sympathy.

They were pretty and talented, and in more modern times may have been superstars, but work remained thin once vaudeville opportunities dried up. In the 1950s their story was fictionalised in an exploitation film, Chained for Life, and the twins ended their days working in a grocery store.

Side Show boasts a number of group numbers for the full cast, plus big voiced solos for minor characters like Jake (Matt Marchant, who effectively conveys frustration and affection for the twins), Terry (Mark Evans, who displays a vibrant vocal range), Houdini (Stefano Bassi, who also appears in chorus roles) and the twins themselves.

Dream sequences jostle with reality, with a lot of humour running through the piece, as the twins find their independence, reach for a bit of happiness, and then reconcile with the fact the world just sees them as curiosities.

Matthew Pimm’s director and choreography could put a number of professional productions to shame, and if there were a couple of microphone mishaps, these were easily overlooked with the excellent lighting and accomplished band led by Ken Williams.

Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s songs are very good, and this musical deserves a bit more recognition, as do Daisy and Violet Hilton – here they are represented as women with the same dreams, emotions and ambitions as anyone else.

Side Show might be ripe for a professional revival, given the success of The Greatest Showman, which also features bearded ladies and the like. But while we wait, this production is on until Saturday at Ealing’s little theatre jewel, so go if you can.


Rosmersholm (Duke of York’s)

A sunny afternoon is perhaps not the perfect time to see one of Ibsen’s more ponderous plays, but this tale of the morally oppressive house of Pastor Rosmer, the memory of his drowned wife, and the political machinations in the upcoming election has a lot of relevance to what’s happening in the UK right now.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke in Rosmersholm. Photo by Johan Persson.

Ian Rickson’s production finds the humour within the text and translation (by Duncan MacMillan) despite the constant feeling, quite rightly, that disaster is just around the corner. With perceptive comments about the power of the press to bring influence from good or bad, the play retains its power to connect.

John Rosmer (Tom Burke) has lost his faith and has been swayed to the political left, personified by disgraced Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) who was cast out for having a child with a married woman, and who now publishes the leftist newspaper The Lighthouse.

Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) whose dead sister had been married to Rosmer, represents the right-wing of politics, against any talk of equality and a strong upholder of what he sees is the decent way of living (marriage, children, the Church, sobriety). He reveres the ancestors of Rosmersholm, a set of unsmiling men depicted in portraits which line the walls of the large dining room in which we first find ourselves.

Tom Burke in Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

Into this house we also find Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who had been a friend to both the Rosmers, and who is a liberated, independent thinker with a shadowy past. In contrast to her is Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), long-time housekeeper, who gets her opinions from the traditional paper The Tribune, yet acknowledges that women “are all human”.

There is also an academic idealist, come to grief, in the person of Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight), who turns up to Rosmersholm in rags, to call in favours from his former pupil and protege. His assumption that the people can think for themselves also comes to grief.

Peter Wight in Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

Rae Smith’s set is huge and oppressive, with cavernous space and triple height doors and windows, with Rosmer’s bedroom showing the spaces where his cross and (presumably) portrait of his dead wife once graced the wall.

At first the house is in darkness, furniture shrouded, dead flowers; then it opened up to represent something of the insight Rosmer thinks he has gained of the world.

When he tells his bewildered servants “I do not think I am better than you” and gives them fresh flowers to take back to their families, this is mainly received in silence, save one manservant who skips briefly on his way to the door.

Hayley Atwell and company of Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

The ending is bleak, and cleverly indicated as the stage floods with water as the mill wheel fails to keep the river moving. This is an important new reading of Rosmersholm, which deserves a bit more interest from audiences.


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