Peter Shaffer’s Equus remains a play of almost unbearable intensity, with its touch of the confessional, religious mania, and deep eroticism. It’s also hard to pull off, with humans depicting horses and a heavy dose of telling, not showing, other than those two pivotal scenes that close each act.
Dr Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist, who uses games and tricks to get into the mind of those who come to the mental hospital for treatment. One such is disturbed teenager Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses in the stable where he worked.
At first Alan only communicates by singing TV ad jingles, but slowly Dysart starts to get through, but in doing so to reach the boy “in misery” (as friend and magistrate Hesther puts it) he only awakens his own unhappiness and neurosis.
Dysart can be a showy role: although originated by Alec McCowen on stage, actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton (who went on to star in the film version which I have seen many times) were attracted to the role, which is on stage throughout the 2 hour 40 running time, and even before, as audiences adjust to the sparse set surrounded on three sides by white curtains.
Here, Zubin Varla is quiet, nervous, twitchy. At first his Dysart seems ineffectual, but slowly his compelling performance commands attention, and without any actorly bombast, becomes one of the best I’ve seen this year. The doctor who cannot “gallop”, who sits every night resenting the woman, his wife, opposite him, who dreams of sacrificing children.
As Alan, Ethan Kai provides a staggering breakrhrough performance of animal intensity as the plot develops, and we learn how his parents’ conflict with religion and his growing fascination with sex has led to him first becoming erotically obsessed with the Cruxifiction, then with the feel, smell and sweat of horses.
Using flashes and washes of coloured light, staged reconstructions, herbal cigarettes, and the imagination, Ned Bennett’s production, which has transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, illuminstes Shaffer’s play and underlines its power to provoke, shock, disturb and profoundly move an audience.
Although this is ultimately a two-hander for most of its running time, the supporting cast remain essential, with Ira Mandela Siobhan’s Nugget, Robert Fitch’s Mr Strang, Doreene Blackstock’s Mrs Strang, and Natalie Radmail-Quirke’s Hesther of particular note.
Shelly Maxwell’s strong and sensual choreography, Giles Thomas’s sound design, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting all contribute to making this a powerful revival I will remember for a long time.
Equus continues at the Trafalgar Studios until 7 September. Photo credits The Other Richard.
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
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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Welcome to the second instalment of The Mix, in which I’ll look at some of the things in London theatre which have caught my eye.
A is for Admissions
Alex Kingston stars in Joshua Harmon’s new comedy at the Trafalgar Studios, where it runs until 25 May, after which it has a run at Richmond Theatre until 1 Jun.
Described as a “bold new comedy” this both takes a knock at the status quo and, timely enough, reflects some of the corruption going on overseas over fixed university and school places. I will be reporting back from this show soon. For information see https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/admissions/
B is for Bunker and Boulevard
The Bunker Theatre was converted from an underground car park into an ambitious, artist-led space with two resident companies, Damsel Productions and Pint-Sized. Now in its third season, The Bunker presents an interesting mix of productions in an eclectic space underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory. I’ll be visiting to see Funeral Flowers later in the year.
The Boulevard Theatre has been announced as Soho’s newest playhouse, due to open in autumn 2019. Built on the site of the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar, this vibrant arts venue will host theatre, comedy, cabaret, music, film and literature with a seated capacity of 165.
C is for the Canal Cafe
The Canal Cafe Theatre celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Based on the edge of the Regent’s Canal, above the Bridge House Pub, the 60 seat theatre (arranged as table seating) presents comedy and drama, and helped to launch acts such as Miranda Hart and the League of Gentlemen. It is the home of the NewsRevue, the world’s longest running comedy show.
Mobile phones, takeaways, sing-alongs, photography, heckling, late comers, drunk audience members, coughing, noisy sweet wrappers, putting drinks or bags or yourself on the stage, you name it. It’s a tough old world out there and theatre is a nice escape for many of us, so if you’re guilty of any of the items in the list: just stop!
A few things you may want to bear in mind if you want to be a model audience member – put your phone away (switched off) during the performance, keep your singing in your own head, don’t snap pics, don’t interrupt or talk, don’t stagger in late, don’t stagger in drunk, suck a cough sweet and sip on a bottle of water (or if you’re coughing badly, stay at home in bed), bring loose sweets only, respect the performers’ space even if it is just literally that rather than a conventional stage.
Simple, isn’t it?
F is for Frozen
If you’d been on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane backstage tours last year just before the theatre closed for renevation, you will have known that Frozen was set to be the first new show on re-opening in autumn 2020, but it is now official, and you can sign up for information and pre-sale of tickets. No news yet on whether any of the Broadway cast will transfer with the show but you can read the rave review of the New York production at https://www.newyorktheatreguide.com/reviews/review-of-disneys-frozen-on-broadway
The film of Frozen is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and the stage production, directed by Michael Grandage, has already won a Tony Award nomination for best new musical. The Drury Lane production will feature set and costume design by Christoper Oram, lighting design by Natasha Katz, choreography by Rob Ashford.
G is for Groan Ups
Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) have announced their new show, set to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in September 2019. Groan Ups is a brand-new comedy about growing-up, asking whether we are really that different at 30 than at 13, this is being pitched as “a lesson not to be skipped”.
The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is proving to be a rich source of musicals transferring into the capital, with Pippin, Aspects of Love, Yank, and Hair.
Based in Ancoats, the company is a joint venture for creative couple William Wheldon and Joseph Houston, and producer Katy Lipson. Together they are Hope Aria and their current musical project is Rags.
Over at the Hope Theatre in Islington, a new production is underway. Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story centres on the murder popularised in the Hitchcock film Rope, this time made into a musical by Stephen Dolginoff. The show runs from 2-20 April. More information at http://www.thehopetheatre.com/
I is for the Iris Theatre
The Iris Theatre is one of London’s award winning theatre companies, performing each summer in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (known as the ‘Actors Church’).
This year’s summer season runs from 19 June-1 Sept and comprises Hamlet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If the classics don’t appeal, try a ticket for a new musical Parenthood runs on the 3 May or Cleopatra runs on the 11 May.
Approaching its 30th anniversary in a former Barclays Bank branch in Camden, this ecletic nightspot offers a wide range of music and dance events. For listings and information visit https://thejazzcafelondon.com/
K is for Katzpace
Katzpace is a new 50 seat theatre based at London Bridge, under the German Bierkeller. Billed as “London’s coolest theatre” it showcases theatre and comedy with an edgy and intelligent feel, hosting scratch nights, queer theatre, improv and more.
At the start of April it becomes on of the venues for the 2019 London Pub Theatre Festival. Its resident theatre company, Exploding Whale Theatre, is made up of recent graduates. Keep an eye on the venue and its work at https://www.katzpace.co.uk/whats-on
L is for LIVR
LIVR merges live performance, streaming and virtual reality to provide access to theatrical experiences via a mobile phone and a headset. It is the first VR platform dedicated to theatre, to offer “the best seat in the house without leaving the house”.
With a monthly subscription and a growing library of content, this may revolutionise how we access our theatre spaces and productions. I hope to offer a full feature on how this works later in the year.
Over at the Finborough Theatre, musical Maggie May is enjoying a revival in its first London production in half a century. Lionel Bart’s show is a hard-hitting celebration of working-class life on Merseyside and runs to the 20 April. It also commemerates the 20th anniversary of Bart’s death.
The National has announced its new season and it is entirely made up of male playwrights, which is a little disappointing. However, I will be attending to see Hansard, featuring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, and I am intrigued by their new musical show for children and the young at heart, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park is often a martyr to the English weather, but unfailingly presents a summer season to shout about. This year the American perennial Our Town goes shoulder to shoulder with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while musical and opera fans are served by revivals of Evita and the ENO’s Hansel and Gretel.
London is chock-full of pub theatres, intimate and exciting spaces which generate new work and give a sideways slant on old favourites. They often have left-field or evocative names – The Hen and Chickens, Etcetera, Tabard, Katzpace, Bread and Roses. They may be small, but they are an essential part of London’s theatreland.
London’s theatreland is a safe and energising space for LGBTQ+ shows, with venues such as Above the Stag, the King’s Head, Soho Theatre, Hackney Showroom, Arcola Theatre, Park Theatre, The Glory, The Yard, Camden People’s Theatre, and more showcasing new writing, queer seasons, or even entire programming with the rainbow flag prominently in focus, the metropolis can certainly hold its head up with pride.
R is for the Rose
The Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames celebrated its tenth birthday last year and shows no signs of slowing down. As well as some excellent upcoming shows including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Snow Queen, the theatre now has an Emerging Artists Fellowship in honour of its founder, Sir Peter Hall.
There is also a second Rose in London, the Rose Playhouse on Bankside. Billed as “Bankside’s first Tudor theatre”, this was the site of the Save The Rose campaign in 1989, and what has since been uncovered enjoys English Heritage Scheduled Monument status. Events taken place regularly, and there is a 30th anniversary gala planned in May. The Rose is still in desperate need of support – visit http://www.roseplayhouse.org.uk/experience/events/ to find out more.
S is for Shapeshifting
If you move quickly and get across to the Barbican Centre you can catch Cillian Murphy’s astonishingly physical and visceral performance as the Crow in Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which runs until 13 April. It’s sold out, but returns might be available on the day.
T is for Tributes
Over in Clapham rehearsals are underway for Tony’s Last Tape, a transfer from Nottingham in which Philip Bretherton plays Tony Benn, at the Omnibus Theatre. Presented by Excavate, this is based on the diaries of one of Britain’s seminal and most divisive politicians, and is accompanied by an exhibition – Tracey Moberley’s audio diaries of Tony Benn.
It’s British Summer Time so it must be time for return of the Underbelly Festival at the South Bank. Running from 5 April-29 September 2019, you can enjoy family-focused shows, comedy, cabaret, and the circus across 31 seperate shows. Now in its 11th year, there is also a large outdoor bar, street food, and a truly festival atmosphere with shows which are short (less than an hour), cheap (less than £20), and cheerful.
V is for Violet and Vincent River
Two shows to highlight this month.
At the Charing Cross, Jeanine Tesori’s musical Violet continues until the 6 April. This award-winning tearjerker set on a greyhound bus and its environs benefits from an excellent set and some very good performances.
Meanwhile, over at the Trafalgar Studios 2, Vincent River is a one-act play focusing on hate crime in Dagenham. It previously ran at the Hampstead Theatre in 200, and in the West End in 2007. It plays from the 16 May-22 June.
W is for Wembley and White City
New theatres are always worth celebration, and the first of two promised Troubadour Theatres opens in June, at Wembley Park, on the site of the former Fountain Studios. The inaugural productions are Dinosaur World Live and a stop-off for the tour of War Horse. The second Troubadour is due to open in White City, on former BBC Media Village land, later in the year, with two flexible spaces of 1,200 and 800 seats respectively. For more information see https://www.troubadourtheatres.com/
X is for King’s Cross (X)
In the vicinity of King’s Cross Station are a variety of fine performance spaces.
The Shaw Theatre is situated next to the British Library and has a programme of dance, musical theatre, drama and talks. They have recently made their My Fair Lady rehearsal space available for hire.
The Platform Theatre on Handyside St is part of Central St Martins at the University of the Arts and comprises four performance spaces and a bar.
King’s Place on York Way is described as ‘a hub for music, art, dialogue and food’.
Y is for the Yard
The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick aims to make “theatre about our world, today”. Around the corner from Hackney Wick Station in Queen’s Yard, this fully accessible space also boasts a bar and kitchen. Their current production, running to the 11 May, is a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which for the first time has a female actor playing John Proctor. I’ll be reporting back from this show in April – for information and booking go to https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/theatre/events/the-crucible/
Z is for Z Hotels
Finally, if all the excitement leads you to want a place to lay your weary head, try the compact rooms of one of London’s Z hotels. With eight to choose from across the capital, and two more coming soon, this could be an affordable option for those of you travelling for your theatre fix.
The ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season of plays aimed at an audience who knows little about theatre has been the brainchild of director Jamie Lloyd over at the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre), and at £54 a ticket and £4.50 a programme it isn’t a cheap excursion.
This time around ‘Richard III’ is played by Martin Freeman, who is currently in the ascendant after playing Dr Watson in the ‘Sherlock’ reboot and Bilbo Baggins in the film franchise ‘The Hobbit’. His appeal has always been a bit of a mystery to me, although as Watson he is a lot better than I would have expected having only seen him before as Tim in ‘The Office’ and in the poor-quality TV sitcom, ‘Hardware’.
It seems a little like stunt casting, but after seeing Richard Armitage in ‘The Crucible’ recently I was prepared to give Freeman the benefit of the doubt. Richard III is one of the great theatre roles and one of the strongest Shakespeare leads, and many actors have made the part their own (notably Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, and my particular favourite, Ian McKellen).
The theatre programme’s introduction informs us that we are probably not used to attending theatre performances, are unlikely to know much about history, and are likely to be strangers to Shakespeare (which might explain why he gets a writer’s bio under the list of creatives). This isn’t actually true (or isn’t for me, anyway), but if that’s the assumption, perhaps it explains why this muddled production tries to move the War of the Roses and Richard’s court into the late 1970s (the ‘Winter of Discontent’) and brings in all manner of political intrigues from that time as well of those of the last years of the Plantagenets.
The set is a simple one, two tables facing each other with seating, microphones, old televisions, reel-to-reel tape recorders, a lift, a couple of old-style telephones, and harsh fluorescent lighting. King Edward IV is a sickly man with an oxygen cylinder and mask ready for his periods of lack of breath, while the yes men of the court (Catesby, Ely, Buckingham – well-played as an oily spin-doctor by Jo Stone-Fewings) have identikit glasses and moustaches which unfortunately brought to mind the Monty Python ‘Whicker Island’ sketch but I assume was meant to convey that these men were without independent thought and instead were bland sycophants who blindly followed the seat of power.
Before the play started, we saw Queen Margaret, whose husband and son had been slaughtered in the conflict and coup which brought Edward to power, grieving just to the side of the main action, with a portrait of her late husband obliterated by a bloody cross. Maggie Steed plays Margaret but she seems to belong in another play – initially resembling Mrs Thatcher with coiffed hair and handbag, she becomes more dishevelled as the play progresses and she learns to curse.
Edward’s Queen is played by Gina McKee, an actor I can sometimes see as overplaying, but here she moves from arrogant steel to distraught bereavement with some style – she has good scenes with both Steed’s Margaret and Freeman’s Richard, especially when she is bound to a chair to hear a twisted proposal of marriage between her daughter Elizabeth and recently widowed Richard, a proposal which might restore her to riches and power. The conflict between her need for such power and her hatred for the ‘bunch-backed toad’ who murdered her sons is powerful.
The central performance, though, is lacking. Martin Freeman’s Richard has been described by some reviewers as ‘terrifying’ but I disliked his comedic seeking for laughs in lines which should have the ability to score emotional points or chill the audience. The ‘my kingdom for a horse’ line was thrown away, and many lines and reactions were accompanied by expressions intended to bring laughter from those watching – and when we laugh, we’re not convince by this man. The scene where Hastings is accused of being a traitor and sent for execution is usually one of the highlights of the play, and shows the ruthlessness of a man seeking the ultimate seat of power, the ruthlessness that will dispatch his friends and relations if he perceives they stand in the way. Here it simply does not convince, and the appearance shortly afterwards of Hasting’s head in a box, dripping gore, seems unnecessary.
Much has been made of the gory focus of this play – and there is one sequence where an audience member in row C just in front of us did get spattered with blood – but despite many deaths being shown on stage (Clarence drowned in a fish tank rather than the traditional butt of wine – another scene where the emotional point is missed as his big speech feels rushed; Rivers being injected with something which causes him to fit and die; Queen Anne being strangled with a telephone wire by a Richard who sees a better marriage alliance elsewhere – a scene so protracted it loses energy very quickly; Buckingham quickly and cruelly dispatched by a Caseby he saw as a friend) it isn’t the blood-drenched spectacle you might expect.
The theatre also needs to sort out its air-conditioning and to relax their policy of not allowing patrons to cross the set to reach the second programme/ice-cream seller in the interval. It feels as if the theatre is stating an aim to reach new audiences but in doing so, is determined to alienate a core audience who might simply look for comfort and convenience without being ripped off. As for Freeman, it seems many people in the audience are simply fans of his rather than being attracted in any way by the play.