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Thursday, 23 June 2022

REVIEW: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

The celebration of sisterhood can take many forms, but we don’t need to flip back very far in the history books to see how women have changed the world. This new musical is based on the award-winning picture book by suffragette descendent Kate Pankhurst. It seems the influence of Six is bearing fruit as an all-female ensemble brings to life some of history’s greatest women. This show is bursting with sass and attitude as they deliver a large slice of edutainment; that delectable blend of entertainment and information. The Theatre Royal Stratford East unsurprisingly drew a youthful contingent as this tight 90-minute musical kicked off with a real sense of purpose.

The story begins with the instantly familiar and infamous school trip to the museum. Jade (Kudzai Mangombe), an inquisitive 11-year-old has slipped away from her party. She is coping with her parents’ separation and wishes people would notice her. Wandering into the Gallery of Greatness she enters a space devoid of time. Jade encounters a range of fantastic women who have changed the world. Twelve characters burst on stage and show Jade how she too can be great and change the world just like they did. Emmeline Pankhurst (Kirstie Skivington) emerges in a funky, glittering military uniform while Amelia Earhart (Renee Lamb) is the super confident aviator. Marie Curie (Jade Kennedy) is the genius who discovered radium and Jane Austen (Christina Modestou) is the wordsmith with crystal clear delivery.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

REVIEW: Cancelling Socrates at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Growing up as a callow youth Socrates was the chain-smoking, midfield genius that played in the great Brazilian football team of the early 1980s. I’ve since learned he was also the founding father of Western philosophy. Two entirely different geniuses that require a unique response. The crowd-pleasing footballer was simple to read and understand, but the philosopher who deep dives into the soul is another matter entirely. Both individuals are rightly admired in their respective fields, but the latter is the subject of this new play by Howard Brenton. It draws tantalising parallels with modern events as the trial of Socrates in 399 BC is re-evaluated. 

Socrates (Jonathan Hyde) is a philosopher who has seemingly run out of credit. His enemies are baying for blood and have brought charges against him of worshipping false gods and corrupting the young. He finds a sympathetic ear in Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) who pleads with Socrates to soften the tone and secure a lighter sentence at trial. His wife Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) bemoans the tendencies of her errant husband; while Aspasia (Sophie Ward) is the wily courtesan and torch bearer for equality. The people have suffered plague, war and political incompetence (ring any bells?) and now just want to get back to normal (bells getting louder?). What they don’t need is an atheist in their midst who thinks too much.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

REVIEW: Orlando at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Hushed tones of reverence surround Virginia Woolf as a leading purveyor of modernist writing and membership of the Bloomsbury Group logically marked her for greatness. However, applying such complexity overlooks her skill as a communicator of ideas. Woolf was years ahead of her time, not only inspiring feminism but the ability to tell stories with great originality. Orlando was published in 1928 and is thought to be one of her lighter novels. It was written in honour of lover Vita Sackville-West, whose aristocratic family history provided the template for this time travelling frolic. This new stage adaptation by Sarah Ruhl gives the novel a makeover with satisfying results.

Our story begins in the 16th Century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A three-strong chorus (Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright) relate the machinations of Orlando (Taylor McClaine). The nobleman and aspiring poet soon catches the attention of good Queen Bess. Orlando becomes a favourite at court but later falls in love with seductive Russian princess Sasha (Skye Hallam). They romance each other at the frost fair on a frozen River Thames. However, Sasha later returns to Russia and a crestfallen Orlando seeks comfort in his poetry. The years tick by as a new monarch takes the throne; Orlando is later dispatched to Constantinople as an ambassador. Whilst there they fall asleep for many days and cannot be roused. When he awakes Orlando has turned into a woman. As she lives through the centuries what will Orlando discover about the world as a woman?

Sunday, 1 May 2022

REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall

At the risk of going out on a limb, most homes will have an Agatha Christie novel buried in a cupboard. With masterful plotting and subtle clues dropping like well-timed grenades, there are few writers who can hold the attention as well. Christie’s style lends itself to stage productions where the narrative can be distilled into key scenes. ‘The Mousetrap’ remains the world’s longest-running play. Every tourist has the show on their ‘to do’ list such is the author’s enduring appeal. Witness for the Prosecution was adapted from a short story by Christie and looks set to join the ‘appointment theatre’ club. Originally staged in 1953 it was eclipsed by the Billy Wilder directed big-screen version. Released four years later the film became a classic featuring Hollywood icons including Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power. 

County Hall is a magnificent building on London’s South Bank and was formerly home to the Greater London Council. Designed by Ralph Knott in the Edwardian Baroque style, a beautiful chamber emerges as the play’s setting. With an ornate finish in wood and marble, it becomes a perfect stand-in for Court no.1 at the Old Bailey. A subtle, haunting soundtrack kicks in as the lights dim and the story gently unfolds.

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

REVIEW: Anyone Can Whistle at the Southwark Playhouse

How exactly does a gifted composer like Stephen Sondheim follow up three smash hits on Broadway; especially when one of them was West Side Story, a seminal work that set the benchmark for all that followed it? Astronauts that fly to the moon do not even begin to describe the dilemma in which he found himself, as Anyone Can Whistle opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1964. Negative reviews sadly killed the show off after only 9 performances. In the US critics appear all-powerful and the public will take it hook line and sinker. In the UK, audiences are more likely to make up their own minds and see the show before passing judgment. But its stage history since then has been patchy and inconclusive. This new production from The Grey Area and Alex Conder bubbles with confidence and a sureness of touch so typical of a Sondheim musical. 

Monday, 7 March 2022

REVIEW: After the End at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

With tragic events unfolding in Ukraine, there is something deeply prophetic in this new production of Dennis Kelly’s play depicting a city under nuclear attack. The threat of nuclear warfare has hitherto been confined to the history books; those old enough will recall chilling public information films advising what people should do in the event of an attack. The spectre of a new cold war gives this play a grim resonance, and is a bitter reminder of the parlous state in which civilisation finds itself. So how do two survivors cope in the aftermath; more importantly how do they cope with each other?

Two workmates find themselves in a fallout shelter; it is a morning after the night before of epic proportions. Louise (Amaka Okafor) has a vague memory of being in the pub with Mark (Nick Blood). Gradually their recollections slowly take shape and begin to make more sense. Mark had rescued Louise from the epicentre of the attack and taken refuge in the fallout shelter attached to his flat. They have water, rations, a radio and a camping stove to last two weeks underground, after which they can safely emerge from their incarceration. A shelter with two bunk beds soon loses its charm as the pair gradually get under each other’s skins. Bubbling tensions race to the surface as water-cooler moments in the office begin to take on an entirely new dimension.

Friday, 18 February 2022

REVIEW: Rain and Zoe Save the World at the Jermyn Street Theatre

War, pandemic and terrorism are common distractions for the world’s politicians; it now seems that climate change is creeping towards the top of their ‘to do’ list. Inevitably, it is the youth who lead the way as inheritors of an increasingly bitter harvest. Future generations rely on what is done now and Greta Thunberg has come to symbolise the fight to save the planet. So what happens when two teenage activists set out on a motorcycle journey to join a group of oil protesters on the East Coast of America? That is the premise for this intriguing drama now receiving its premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Rain (Jordan Benjamin) and Zoe (Mei Henri) are two high school kids from Washington State who share the same sense of adventure. However, Zoe is determined to make a statement and prove her credentials as a climate activist. Rain is hesitant when she suggests they take his motorcycle to the east coast. Duly convinced they both head off on the protest trail. Along the way they learn something about themselves as their personal motivation becomes more obvious. Zoe is driven by the example of her mother, a long-standing activist who has set the benchmark for her daughter. Rain meanwhile is guided by his father's spirit as he struggles to stay on the same wavelength as Zoe. They don't fly under the radar for long as their activities soon become the focus of attention.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

REVIEW: The 4th Country at Park Theatre

Any story told against the backdrop of Northern Ireland has an in-built drama; as the region lives with the past and ludicrous understatement known as The Troubles, it also deals with the present fallout replete with its social, economic and political consequences. This play written by Kate Reid comes direct from a successful run at the Vault Festival in 2020. The Plain Heroines Theatre Company specialise in funny plays about difficult subjects and has certainly hit the mark here. Playing upstairs at the always sleek and inviting Park Theatre, it has an intimate space perfectly suited to the subject matter.

The story begins within the confines of Stormont as Shona (Aoife Kennan) a stressed civil servant in the Department for Health begins another long day. The power vacuum in Northern Ireland has left them in charge of fighting various fires. Melanie (Kate Reid) is already in the office, eager to start her internship. A baptism of fire lies in wait as calls become increasingly frantic and Melanie is confronted with a familiar face from her native Derry. The bad stuff is about to hit the fan when Conor (Cormac Elliott) bursts in. He slips out of character and begs them to explore the back story. His sister Niamh (Rachael Rooney) emerges from the wings and supports his argument. The cast agrees and duly skip back five months as their characters are fleshed out.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

REVIEW: Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story at the Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing more gripping than a good murder mystery. On stage and screen, it’s kept a voracious public happy with tales of greed, ambition and revenge. Characters with a shady past and an even more suspect present keep us glued to the action. Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story has the added dimension of being a true story. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two wealthy students at the University of Chicago. In 1924, they kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago. It was predictably dubbed the crime of the century as the so-called ‘thrill-killers’ believed they committed the perfect crime. On the face of it, not a great subject on which to base a musical; but Stephen Sondheim proved the macabre can be tuneful with the legendary Sweeney Todd. Similarly, Stephen Dolginoff has written this compact musical that gives the darker side of human nature a distinctly original spin.

Presented as part of The Outsiders Season, this production benefits from a close almost claustrophobic set design. A pianist perched in the corner provides the sole musical accompaniment as a sinister tale steadily unravels. It begins in 1958 as prisoner Nathan Leopold (Bart Lambert) faces his latest parole hearing. He is asked for mitigation to justify his petition. A change of jackets and subtle adjustment in lighting and we are back in 1924.

Monday, 29 November 2021

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic Theatre

The warm glow of the festive season draws closer as we find comfort in a rich cultural landscape. Most of all we have the flawless beauty of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Written in 1843, there have been countless adaptations for film, TV and the stage; a highly successful musical written by Leslie Bricusse has also been a regular fixture in the West End. This timeless story of hope and redemption is rightly woven into the fabric of Christmas. The Victorians were largely responsible for the traditions we now hold dear; so what could be better than an evening in the company of our favourite curmudgeon Ebeneezer Scrooge! There is an expectation that Old Vic productions will be good, and this one satisfies on every conceivable level.

The Old Vic has a natural glamour and the atmosphere is obvious from the second you cross the threshold; it is the perfect venue for the perfect story. Picturesque lanterns hung from the ceiling offered a lilting glow as a Victorian gentleman handed out free mince pies. The faint sound of a solo violin could be heard as the auditorium gradually filled with expectant patrons. A platform extending from the stage puts the audience very much in the centre of the action. The functional set is brilliantly lit but packs an unexpected surprise for the finale in Act 2.

Saturday, 6 November 2021

REVIEW: Footfalls & Rockaby at the Jermyn Street Theatre

There are some playwrights who naturally invoke a sharp intake of breath. Samuel Beckett is one such example with a rich canon of work that stretches across stage and screen. A Dubliner who traded the Emerald Isle for Paris, Beckett is the most influential of modernist writers. To reject conventional plotting in favour of deeper analysis might be a big ask for some, but keeping an open mind will pay dividends. The Jermyn Street Theatre has now brought together two of his lesser-known works entitled ‘Footfalls and Rockaby’. Although constrained by a painfully short running time of 40 minutes, it easily does justice to the most singular of writers. With smart direction from Richard Beecham, the production also benefits from the presence of Dame Sian Phillips and Charlotte Emmerson, who deliver wonderfully controlled performances. 

The performance area of the venue looks different from its usual aesthetic lightness. The stage walls are entirely black with a catwalk linked to a broader platform encased by a square metal frame. A solitary rocking chair sits in the middle as white strip lights occasionally illuminate the structure. Both props are used to haunting effect as the performance develops.

Friday, 29 October 2021

REVIEW: Tender Napalm at the King’s Head Theatre

A visit to the King’s Head Theatre in Islington always feels like a lesson in theatrical history. Since its inception in 1970 the venue has become the big daddy of fringe theatre. Panning around the bar is a visual amble to savour. The walls are covered with pictures of past productions featuring the great and good; it is very much an actor’s theatre and familiar faces can be spotted mingling in the wings. This performance has added expectation in the staging of Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley. A significant talent who could never just be called a playwright, Ridley has excelled in poetry, photography and children’s literature. He also wrote the screenplay for the hugely successful film ‘The Krays’ starring Gary and Martin Kemp.

Ridley’s plays have often been tagged as ‘adult’ and ‘in-yer-face’, Tender Napalm is no exception as a man (Jaz Hutchins) and woman (Adeline Waby) communicate with passion and intensity. Health warnings adorn the publicity blurb and signs displayed at the door make the position abundantly clear. There are 'scenes of a sexual nature' which sets the bar at a predictable level. The black interior was suitably lit by red and ultra violet lights as dry ice spread throughout the room. Our protagonists took the stage in white vests and combat pants. Man and woman begin an exposition of their lives with a narrative that is both explicit and challenging. They are a couple in love but contrasting emotions clash as reality crosses with fantasy. Tales of tsunamis, serpents and UFOs give expression to feelings of anger, frustration and grief. There is reference to a desert island and armies of monkeys serving mangoes and passion fruits; it makes for a hazy but compelling narrative.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

REVIEW: A Splinter of Ice at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Growing up in the 1970s offers a smorgasbord of memories; tank tops, glam-rock and the three day week all jostle for attention. But the Cold War always loomed large, with the US and Soviet Union flexing their muscles as Britain’s global influence shrunk by the very day. Grim tales of red buttons and nuclear fallout shelters fed the paranoia. Happily the 1980s brought glasnost and perestroika; Michail Gorbachev and a birthmark that looked like the hammer and sickle. Spitting Image would have its wicked way but things were getting better. This engrossing play by Ben Brown picks up in Moscow and imagines a meeting between Graham Greene and Kim Philby. The former, a legendary novelist and latter an MI6 man who turned Soviet spy.

The Jermyn Street Theatre has a great sense of spatial awareness and makes the most of a compact performance area. The set is stocked with symbols and mementoes of a Cold War existence. A chess set with a game in progress, framed medals and a mural depicting the Moscow skyline. It's a brilliantly simple method of setting the mood and atmosphere. Graham Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) saunters onto set much like one of his greatest creations Harry Lime. He is in Moscow ostensibly to attend a peace conference. But business and pleasure soon become intertwined as he calls on former colleague Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer).

Sunday, 10 October 2021

REVIEW: Rat King at the Hope Theatre

There can be no doubt that we live in disturbed and troubling times. The landscape for young people has never been more challenging and aggressive. The quest for affirmation and acceptance leaves little room for any perception of failure. Is it any real surprise that kids will sometimes look for alternatives; an escape route from the expectation and pressure of modern life? This new play by Bram Davidovich explores these themes and many others, as two youths find their way in the life they have chosen. Jacko is streetwise and world-weary for someone so young. Kelly has just broken free of the parental control suffocating her with kindness. She is now the sorcerer’s apprentice as Jacko shows her the ways of a very different world.

Kelly (Matilda Childs) has a comfortable family home with well-meaning but overbearing parents. However, the regimentation of school and regular medication becomes a monotonous daily grind. Her inner demons dictate that she has to make a run for it. But what exactly is 'it'? Pure unadulterated freedom is the answer, and the sense she answers to no one but herself. Kelly soon meets Jacko (Melker Nilsson), a homeless young man who lives on his wits. His reasons for becoming a runaway are in total contrast to Kelly. Jacko was driven from his home by too little kindness and understanding. They gradually realise how much common ground is shared and have a similar emotional trajectory. A peculiar relationship develops between the pair, but can they survive the shifting sands of street life with their sanity intact?

Saturday, 18 September 2021

REVIEW: Relatively Speaking at the Jermyn Street Theatre

A sharp memory hit me as I negotiated the narrow stairway leading to the Jermyn Street Theatre. My last visit in March 2020 was just prior to the first lockdown; artistic director Tom Littler delivered a clarion call for patrons’ support, but was quickly overshadowed by the so-called ‘new norm,’ That was 18 months ago, it feels much longer but it’s good to be back at one of the West End’s hidden gems. The theatre is pretty much as I left it; an intimate space that naturally allows the audience proximity with the performers. Their latest production is a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s first big hit on the West End stage.

The author is, without doubt, a heavyweight of British theatre, having written 84 plays over a career spanning six decades. Forty have made it onto West End stage with a further ten appearing on Broadway; a glittering record that is complemented by a generous helping of Evening Standard, Oliver and Tony awards. Relatively Speaking is set up on a delightfully old fashioned premise, but works a treat thanks to the brilliantly constructed narrative and a highly talented cast. It throws together a heady mix of confusion, betrayal and mistaken identity that is hard to resist. With a hint of farce and twist of Ayckbourn magic, it becomes a thoroughly enjoyable piece.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

REVIEW: The Good Dad (A Love Story) at the Hope Theatre

The online flyers for the Good Dad (A Love Story) appear quite daunting at first glance. Decrees to honour thy mother and thy father are spiritually demanding propositions; and mean many things to many people. However, it becomes evident this is a powerful story based on true events from the 1980s. It naturally gives the play greater impact because we easily connect with real characters. Be warned, this is no easy ride as it tugs at family dynamics and raw nerves exposed by conflict. For the audience, it will educate and enlighten before it entertains. With the ‘E’ words in that order, we know what to expect. 

Playwright Gail Louw pulls absolutely no punches in this hard-hitting one-woman show starring Sarah Lawrie. She plays Donna who awakes incarcerated in a cell. Over the course of the next 60 minutes, we get to find out exactly why. The audience are presented with the detailed exposition of a dysfunctional family; nothing unusual there, all families are, to a greater or lesser extent.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

REVIEW: Tier Three Sisters at the Hope Theatre

The works of Anton Chekhov are always challenging even for the most erudite of theatregoers. Whilst his place in the pantheon of playwrights is assured he might be considered heavy going for some. I happily sighed with relief when an adaptation dropped invitingly through my inbox. A re-worked version of ‘Three Sisters’ is just the job for a long-overdue visit to the Hope Theatre in Islington. Based in the Hope & Anchor pub it was the complete entertainment venue pre-Covid; live bands playing in the basement, an excellent bar at street level and the theatre upstairs presenting some of the coolest plays on the fringe circuit. Like all theatre venues it’s beginning to find its feet again and a reassuring sign that normality is close at hand.

For the uninitiated, a brief cantor through the author’s work might be helpful. Anton Chekhov is now widely recognised as one of the great playwrights but was only properly appreciated after his premature death in 1904. His most notable works include the Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters which was first performed in 1901. Three Sisters tells the tale of siblings Olga, Masha and Irina. They live in a remote Russian town but dream of returning home to Moscow where they felt true happiness. 
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