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.

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World’s End (King’s Head)

Closing off the venue’s Queer Season is this debut play from James Corley, set in 1998/9. The title refers to the tower block in Chelsea where most of the action is situated, but with a running thread of terrorism it inevitably takes on another meaning.

Tom Milligan as Ben and Mirlind Bega as Besnik in World's End
Tom Milligan as Ben and Mirlind Bega as Besnik in World’s End

Ben is a nervous, stammering young man of nineteen. He loves his video games but is voluntarily in the house almost all the time due to his anxiety. Mum Viv has made them move several times, and it is clear they belong in another part of town. A lack of money, opportunities, and sex has left her frustrated and her world revolves around her son.

Next door, renting from the council, are refugees from Kosovo, ultra-masculine artist dad Ylli and confident gay son Besnik. Their flat is bigger, they pay a lot less than their neighbours. Their TV constantly flickers with scenes of conflict from their home country.

Nikolaus Brahimllari as Ylli in World's End
Nikolaus Brahimllari as Ylli in World’s End

Bonding over their shared interest in Super Mario, Ben and Besnik become ever closer in the tightly-furnished living room which doubles as a second sleeping space, where Ben dreans of escaping to Malaysia to his absent dad, and downloads expensive gay porn on the internet.

World’s End is about the shadows of art, about finding yourself, about the clear perils of growing up, whether fighting for your nation’s freedom, or something much closer to home. It is about light and dark, from an early scene where Ylli tells Viv a true artist captures light and colour, to a final scene of a rooftop eclipse. Ultimately it is about love in all its forms.

Patricia Potter as Viv in World's End
Patricia Potter as Viv in World’s End

The performances are generally good: Tom Milligan as Ben holds the attention in both quiet moments and moments of intense aggrevation; Patricia Potter manages a difficult character arc of peaks and troughs; Mirlind Bega, in his debut role as Benik, shows a determined sense of spirit, the one his father recognises as “a different kind of fighter”; and Nikolaos Brahimllari, the lonely widower frustrated by both the constraints of Serbian attacks and the freedom of their new home, teases out the portrait painter beneath the soldier.

In the small space of the King’s Head Theatre, itself in need of a bit of care and TLC, we feel firmly in the part of London which never sees money. The lift has been broken for a year, the gas heating guzzles coins in the meter.

Set design for World's End
Set design for World’s End

I would have liked something to anchor us more to 1999 – a flash of a song, perhaps, or a mention of the Millennium Bug. The Zelda game and Benik’s new Converse trainers place us there, and the Billy Bass singing fish, but the set and sound design might have done a bit more.

World’s End continues at the King’s Head to the 21 September. It is directed by Harry Mackrill and designed by Rachel Stone. Production photos by Bettina Adela.

Fringe Focus – The King’s Head Theatre

Welcome to another instalment of an 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 second of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Islington, a few miles north of the city, and to the King’s Head Theatre, a long-standing space behind a pub on Upper Street. I asked the theatre to answer some questions on this iconic space, which I visited earlier this year to see This Island’s Mine and Southern Belles.

Exterior of the King's Head Pub and Theatre
Exterior of the King’s Head Pub and Theatre

Interview with Germma Orleans-Thompson, Marketing Assistant

The Kings Head Theatre is quite an iconic fringe venue. What would you say was its USP within the London theatre scene?

We give a platform to emerging companies and artists in addition to our new writing festival Playmill which allows them to showcase their work in a London venue. Due to our Equity fringe agreement, everyone at the King’s Head Theatre both on and off stage must be paid a legal wage which we are very proud of and keen to see more theatres sign up to.

The performance space is quite small, but with a lot of possibilities. What has been your favourite show to stage there, and what was special about it?

Southern Belles has been my favourite show at the King’s Head Theatre as I believe it celebrates what we do best; discovering hidden gems from the past and making great LGBT theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and so much of his work remains unknown.

There are a few theatres based in Islington pubs. What makes yours different, and do you have opportunities for mutual support and collaboration?

Apart from being the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s time [founded in 1970], bringing opera to a more accessible, small scale space is something that we have pioneered. We love our neighbours and would love to work more collaboratively going forward.

You programme a fair amount of LGBTQ theatre, including the current Queer Season. Do you see the King’s Head as an important venue for shows like these?

Yes, the King’s Head Theatre has championed LGBTQIA+ work since early in our history and continue to do. We gave a safe space to shows that did not have anywhere else to go and we have retained that through till now. It’s especially needed now at a time where so many other LGBTQIA+ venues are closing.

What has been your biggest challenge when programming theatre for the space?

We have so many applications from wonderful shows that it’s hard to fit as many of them in as we would like!

What can we expect from the King’s Head for the future?

More fabulous operas, more excellent LGBTQIA+ work and more of the shows that you know and love in a brand new venue!

You don’t receive revenue from the pub in which you are based, but rather rent the space: how can audiences and theatre-lovers support your theatre going forward?

First and foremost; buy a ticket! Ticket sales make up a large part of our revenue and you can never underestimate the power of spreading the word of a brilliant show!

Interior of the King's Head Theatre
Interior of the King’s Head Theatre

My thanks to Germma.

I would like to add that the King’s Head Theatre is currently looking to move to new premises behind the current space, and are seeking additional funding to ensure this happens in 2020. Although I am quite fond of the 110-seat space which currently exists, a new space is Islington Square will be quite exciting, and will boast a larger auditorium and a smaller studio theatre.

Outside the King's Head Pub and Theatre, Upper Street
Outside the King’s Head Pub and Theatre, Upper Street

Southern Belles (King’s Head)

Tennessee Williams was a dramatic big hitter, with regular revivals of his major plays including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie and Night of the Iguana (which is currently running in the West End).

Southern Belles collates two of his lesser-known one-act plays, chosen to kickstart the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season. At 35 and 45 minutes respectively these are little precious nuggets, studies of love and loneliness.

Annabel Leventon in Something Unspoken

The duo of plays opens with Something Unspoken, in which society lesbian Cordelia (a regally poised Annabel Leventon) co-habits in an uncomfortable existence with her mousy companion and secretary of some years, Grace (Fiona Marr).

Cordelia seeks both the approval of her peers in local office, and the affection of the woman she loves so dearly she fills her room with roses, one for each year of their shared friendship.

Fiona Marr in Something Unspoken

Unspoken, of course, and unwanted by Grace, a widow who is so awed by her employer she compares their shades of grey – Cordelia like the Emperor Tiberius with her strength, Grace like a cobweb or something white that is soiled.

Leventon and Marr make the most of material which appears thin at first, but begins to show hidden depths as the play progresses. In the end, it is only in notes of music and petals of a rose that the ladies can truly communicate, with the pain in their eyes sadly evident.

Luke Mullins in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

After the interval it is the turn of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, ignored and unproduced in Williams’ lifetime, and proving to be an astonishing and brutally honest study of unrequited gay love.

Candy (Luke Mullins) has picked up Karl (George Fletcher), a sailor, in a known gay bar. Candy is effeminate, trusting, loving, and naive, while Karl is full of self-loathing of himself and the weakness he shrugs off by abusing Candy mentally and physically.

Luke Mullins and George Fletcher in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

Mullins’s performance as the play progresses and Candy’s drag sweetness descends into a desperation to be noticed no matter what the cost is a revelation, and certainly one of the best I have seen this year.

Whether describing his collection of negligees (“all rainbow colours”), reading a poem about “queens and misfits”, clinging to the fiction of his perfect “marriage” with the married man who seduced and mentored him, then left for “a new chick”, or playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the quietly violent Karl, Mullins makes Candy a towering, tragic figure.

Michael Burrows, Luke Mullins, Ben Chinapen in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

Where Something Unspoken deals with gay love in a somewhat genteel way, Queens is brutal and devastating, even more so when you realise it was written in 1955. These are real characterisations in all their rawness.

Cordelia and Candy are both cut from the same cloth – both predatory, a bit sad, a bit lost. It is clear why director Jamie Armitage has chosen to revive them as a pair, and quite right that Queens runs last.

The use of music is also interesting, with Ben Chinapen’s ethereal vocals introducing each play with carefully curated pieces by Noel Coward and Harry Warren.

Southern Belles continues at the King’s Head until 24 August.

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.