“The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” at the Charing Cross Theatre 

It takes courage as well as expertise to tackle this 1963 play by Tennessee Williams. Director Robert Chevara has the bravery and expertise to do the job but there’s no pretending this a show for everyone. 

Williams’ overwrought, some might say overwritten, script suffers from his own biography (the programme contains a note to that effect). The playwright’s reputation weighs heavily over the work. Take the lead – an aging, addled Southern Belle called Flora – who could be a cliché of earlier writing or, too temptingly, a reflection of Williams’ life. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is rich in symbols and ideas, with dialogue so convoluted it can seem ridiculous. It’s a meditation on mortality, with a terminally ill heroine who’s out of her mind and another character nicknamed The Angel of Death, who is really a (pretty bad) poet. And it’s one of Williams’ ‘memory plays’ as Flora recounts her “demented memoirs” out loud. What kind of a book that would be is a puzzle; ambitions to be another Proust indicate that what she is writing, in snatches, is more fiction than fact. But, as Flora’s grip on reality weakens, she comes to believe her own legend… maybe. 

Chevara gives as much guidance as he can. The production is hampered by a set from Nicolai Hart-Hansen, separating locations in Flora’s Italian villa to little effect. But Chevara makes the piece tense and tender – neither quality easily achieved – and he has a commendable view about the humour in the piece. 

“A witch and a bitch”

The production has strong performances that win respect. The star casting of Linda Marlowe and Sara Kestelman, as Flora and her ‘friend’ The Witch of Capri, is exciting. Kestelman is superb with the waspish humour so many Williams fans adore. But the catty remarks – which are very funny – are handled with restraint. This play shows a serious side of camp, and that is one of its many challenges. 

Marlowe’s Flora is fragile and builds to ferocious as death approaches. Generating surprising sympathy for this “dying monster”, Marlowe also aids suspense. Flora declares, “everything is urgentissimo this summer”, with the aim of taking a lover – quite literally – on her death bed. How’s that for uncomfortable? 

Sanee Raval’s role as Chris Flanders, that so-called Angel of Death, sums up many of the difficulties with the play. More credit to him for his performance. The role is caught between the real and the symbolic. Raval’s performance shows intelligence as the character starts to believe his own myth, while being aware it is one constructed by Gothic gossip. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is extreme to the point of crazed, so you need a director with a very firm hand in charge and an open mind (ready to be blown away) to watch it. Of course, the theatre can only provide one of these. Be prepared to work if you go to this one. 

Until 22 October 2022 

www.charingcrosstheatre.com 

Photo by Nick Haeffner 

“Brown Boys Swim” at the Soho Theatre

Karim Khan’s play deserves the acclaim it received at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and it’s easy to recommend seeing this London transfer. The story of two school friends learning to swim so that they can attend a pool party starts out charming, takes on the issue of racism boldly and has a big sting at the end.

The play serves as an excellent showcase for the talents of Anish Roy and Varun Raj, who play Mohsen and Kash respectively. Both boys are smart but very different – the performers show this skilfully. Kash’s bravado means Raj can bring some humour to the show, while Mohsen’s sensitivity and diffidence are clear from Roy’s performance. There are laughs, ahhhs and a real sense of getting to know these guys.

The friendship is endearing and makes a clever vehicle for showing the everyday racism Khan investigates. It is heart-breaking to see how teenage insecurities are enhanced by stereotyping. That prejudice infuses their lives is clear to both characters, and their discussions on how to deal with it provide engaging arguments. Khan’s highlighting exclusion – how that engenders privilege – is instructive.

The accomplished script is matched by an excellent production. John Hoggarth’s direction has bold moments that create the sensations of swimming in a poetic fashion. And the show is paced perfectly, allowing time to breathe between some very short scenes. The lighting by James Bailey is excellent at complementing quick changes of setting and tone, and James Button’s design is exemplary – a simple set with two benches that takes us to mosque, gym, bus and, of course, swimming pool.

As for the twist at the end of Brown Boys Swim, I don’t want to ruin it. But a cruel revelation brings home the affection between the boys and makes a case for how deep the consequences of racism are. Khan, like his characters, has an eye on the future that makes the ending of his short play painful but sure to live long in the memory.

Until 15 October 2022

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Geraint Lewis

“The P Word” at the Bush Theatre

The letter in the title of Waleed Akhtar’s play covers two insults – slurs against people from Pakistan and homosexuals. The play makes important political points with clarity and skill. Still, the best moments come when the writer confounds expectations.

The P Word is a close examination of two very different men. Bilal (or Billy) is British and deliberately written as unlikeable. His life is work, the gym and Grindr. It’s a harsh view of gay culture, and any humour is bitter. It takes time to appreciate the problems the character faces, a journey the author Akhtar, who performs the role, tackles superbly.

Audience sympathy is channelled towards Zafar, who is seeking asylum having fled Pakistan when his homosexuality was discovered. Esh Alladi brings an intense energy to the role, which is agitating to watch. Anxiety surrounding the future and the trauma Zafar is running from are depicted with sensitivity. But it’s moments of joy, despite everything, that add originality and appeal most. What Zafar goes through is a wakeup call, delivered with conviction, that many need to hear – and the theatre has worked with the charity Micro Rainbow during production.

The two stories are told in tandem, woven together in the skilled script and by Anthony Simpson-Pike’s strong direction. Presenting the men in such detail – so they aren’t just cases or examples – leads to examining prejudices and provides insight especially into the characters’ sad self-hatred and questionable behaviour.

'The-P-Word'-inset-at-Bush-Theatre-Photo-credit-Craig-Fuller

The P Word gets even better when the men meet. A friendship that develops with fits and starts acknowledges how complex their lives are. The performances blossom, but will romance?

There’s tension around this love affair, some coming from the fact that the characters see themselves as an unlikely couple. And, of course, there’s Zafar’s potential deportation. To avoid plot spoilers, let’s just say the play becomes both exciting and rousing. What impresses most is Akhtar’s clever handling of the sentimental, which leads to a superb finale.

Until 29 October 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Craig Fuller

“Sherlock Holmes and the Valley of Fear” at the Greenwich Theatre

Director and writer Nick Lane has experience when it comes to Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. A previous adaptation of The Sign of Four was entertaining but this new production is even better – harder working and more serious. In addition to a fine mystery story, a “snorter of a case” for Sherlock Holmes, we get romance in America’s Wild West. Sherlock Holmes and the Valley of Fear is great value, high quality theatre.

Lane’s adaptation is smart. Flipping back and forth between crimes in Sussex and Pennsylvania is a sensible change from the source material and is impeccably handled. Tristan Parkes music for the show aids comprehension and creates atmosphere.

The lead performers are experienced, too. Luke Barton is an energetic and sometimes playful Holmes. Joseph Derrington is an affable Watson you can care about. Watson’s narration is a highlight – wonderfully clear – while identifying Holmes as the one with “the true flair for drama” shows both the character and Lane as astute observers, adding insight and theatricality to the master detective. Barton and Derrington have fantastic chemistry and there is a tender moment between them, superbly acted, that is further neat addition on Lane’s part.

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Blake Kubena and Alice Osmanski

There’s more, namely the valley of fear itself, which we visit a lot. The supporting cast takes on a lot of roles. Blake Kubena makes a fine romantic lead, while Gavin Molloy has a good line in psychopaths (there’s a bold twist in the adaptation here that’s a real delight). Alice Osmanski is particularly hard working with characters that are less well written and a lot of costume changes (well done to designer Naomi Gibbs).

Even Barton and Derrington double up roles. The extra parts they play make clever contrasts and they perform them well. The production does need another body (two more wouldn’t hurt), but the cast gets to impress by bringing so many characters to life. A great job from start to finish with big brains behind it.

On tour until 26 November 2022

www.blackeyedtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Alex Harvey Brown

“Help! We Are Still Alive” at the Seven Dials Playhouse

What a sweet little show Tim Gilvin and Imogen Palmer have made. Imagining a couple after the apocalypse, making a life together that’s a bit like lockdown (but in this case without the baking), this play with songs is entertaining, endearing and obsessed with comfort food.

Palmer’s book takes the cliché about falling in love with the last person on earth and adds extra flavour – think Worcester sauce on your cheese on toast. Because Jass and Finn were a couple in the ‘old world’… yet she has a secret. Even after world catastrophe, true love doesn’t run smooth.

The action relies too much on audio diaries for exposition, going back and forth in time. Director Georgie Rankcom tries hard to keep the action moving and uses the sparse stage well. Gilvin’s music and lyrics are catchy and satisfyingly neat but leave you wanting more.

If this reaction seems lukewarm, like a pizza slice from Gregg’s after five o’clock, then why am I so keen on the show? And I really am. The answer is its humour, its characters and its performers.

Jass and Finn are adorable. For want of a better description, they are as cute as chocolate buttons. Their affection for each other is believable, as are their problems, sensitively examined in the light of their self-proclaimed Queer status. Deep-rooted anxieties and misgivings are intelligently explicated and – surprise – they have little to do with the end of the world.

The glacé cherry on top of the Mr Kipling cake is the show’s humour. This is what makes Help! We’re Still Alive memorable. With songs about canned pineapples and supermarkets, the mix of quirks and down-to-earth concerns is just… lovely. The jokes provide that je ne sais quoi, as Jass might say, that great shows require.

Elijah Ferreira and Jade Johnson play Finn and Jass. The casting and the chemistry are perfect – they are both superb comedians who aid the script enormously. Angst is acknowledged, but Ferreira and Johnson make you care and try to reassure.

The affection and respect the characters share give us a sense that things will be all right in the end. After all, even if your Ginster’s pasty is cold, it is still delicious.

The affection and respect the characters share give us a sense that things will be all right in the end. After all, even if your Ginster’s pasty is cold, it is still delicious. The affection and respect the characters share give us a sense that things will be all right in the end. After all, even if your Ginster’s pasty is cold, it is still delicious.

Until 15 October 2022

www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Danny Kaan

“Handbagged” at the Kiln Theatre

It feels odd to watch not one but two versions of Queen Elizabeth on stage so soon after her death. A respectful minute’s silence before last night’s show, lead by director Indhu Rubasingham, indicates careful thought has gone into letting Moira Buffini’s five star play go ahead.  But for all the fun in this hilarious piece, which cheekily imagines the Queen’s private meetings with her Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher, her Majesty comes off very well.

That public statements were not allowed to our constitutional monarch means Buffini can make the Queen a contrast to the Prime Minister. Turns out the richest woman in the world had a lot of concerns about social inequality. And her passion for the Commonwealth gives a global perspective in contrast to Thatcher’s little Britain. But there’s also tenderness in Buffini’s writing about the Queen – she’s presented as a fun, witty woman and a caring mother.

All the Queen’s admirable qualities are conveyed by the actors taking on what must be a particularly challenging role right now. Both Abigail Cruttenden and Marion Bailey, as younger and older versions respectively, give strong performances and make a lot of the lines even funnier than they already are; you could happily spend the night watching Bailey’s every expert move.

Buffini is harder on Thatcher. The role is written with more anger and is possibly closer to caricature. The performances from Naomi Frederick and Kate Fahy respond appropriately. Frederick, as the younger version, manages to suggest nervousness about dealing with a figure she reveres that generates a little sympathy. Fahy’s line in dignity, as she looks back on her time at the top, is convincing no matter her views. The scorn with which both women can say the word ‘socialist’ or ‘wet’ is tremendous.

The way all four characters interact as they try to take charge of the story about Britain during the Thatcher years is hilarious. The blend of sarcasm and sincerity is perfect – the quartet of perspectives battle to tell and interpret what happened. The subject of Thatcher’s dementia provides a moving moment and yet another layer of consideration about interpreting the past. Buffini’s script is dazzling and you don’t want to miss a word.

There’s more to Handbagged than some fantastic comedy and strong impersonations – although both of these make the show a must-see. Two more characters join the stage – ‘Actors’ played by Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant who also impress as a variety of famous faces with great lines. The main role of these super supernumeraries is to highlight what putting on a play – and a play about history – entails.

Pointing out what Thatcher and the Queen don’t want to discuss, slowing down the show to their frustration or embarrassment, the ‘Actors’ interjections are often funny and make sure that their characters are satisfyingly full. Attempts at directing these powerful women are brilliant moments, aided by the show’s real director too. Rubasingham directed the first production of the play, almost ten years ago, and her knowledge shines through, brimming with joyous confidence about the strength of what’s on stage: the respectful, you might say faithful, approach to this modern classic seems very much in keeping with our times.

Until 29 October 2022

www.kilntheatre.com

Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Distinguished Villa” at the Finborough Theatre

As fans of London’s fringe theatre know, productions at the Finborough balance new writing with rediscovered classics. The venue hit the jackpot for the former earlier this year with Sophie Swithinbank’s Bacon. Now it’s the turn of the latter: a hit play from 1926 by another female writer, Kate O’Brien, that is thoroughly admirable.

“Refined” is the key word – that’s what proud housewife Mabel wants her home, the property that gives the play its title, to be. But all of O’Brien’s six characters suffer as respectability conflicts with happiness; they are tormented in sophisticated detail by unsuitable relationships and social mores.

O’Brien was breaking ground with her subject matter – looking at suburbanites and “the secret life at home”. The play tackles sex and mental health in what was considered an advanced fashion. Of course, it can’t shock now, but it’s impressively thorough. And there’s a fine sense of rage bubbling under the sophisticated surface.

If someone wrote a period show with this many stiff upper lips (let alone some of the dialogue) today, it would beggar belief. It’s frankly a struggle – you want to shake most of the characters at some point – but O’Brien was there. She is the source material! Her writing makes sure that the repression becomes oppressive.

Brian Martin and Tessa Bonham Jones
Brian Martin and Tessa Bonham Jones

Unfortunately, it is too easy to tell that O’Brien was primarily a novelist. While the plot creates tension, Distinguished Villa is woefully static. Director Hugh Fraser is wise not to try and fight this. The series of scenes, with plodding combinations of characters, is predictable. But the play doesn’t drag and most of what is said is interesting. The scenes themselves are tightly written – there’s an especially strong one for Tessa Bonham Jones, who plays the youngest character and has a stunning moment in the spotlight.

O’Brien seems to miss omniscient narration too much. But it’s easy to enjoy the performances on offer here – again, refined describes them. Mia Austen shows great intelligence as Mabel, combining comic appeal while respecting the character’s arguments and showing her troubles. Matthew Ashforde gives a moving performance as her depressed husband, revealing that the role’s unbelievable timidity stems from deeper problems.

If both leads, and the pivotal role of the ever-observing upper-class lodger Ms Llewellyn (played with great skill by Holly Sumpton), are sometimes flat, the cast makes the most of them. Similarly, Simon Haines and Brian Martin, whose roles are really only about who they may or may not marry, do a great job. Beautifully crafted under Fraser’s tutelage, these are all wonderful studies. But, despite all the detail, I struggled to thoroughly believe in any of characters.

The result of the cast’s fine work is a production full of class. Which is appropriate, as O’Brien’s eye on social status is fascinating. And Carla Evans’ costumes deserve a special mention for accuracy (they are lovely, but this isn’t high fashion as much as home-made derivations). Distinguished Villa is a play more interesting than moving, one to respect more than love. But the chance to see such top-notch craft shouldn’t be missed.

Until 1 October 2022

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Carla Evans

“Doctor Faustus” at the Southwark Playhouse

Christopher Marlowe’s play is always a fiendish one to stage – with ‘Enter Devils’ as a stage direction, how could it not be? But this new updated production is excellent and confirms that shows from Lazarus Theatre are must-sees.

There may be rough moments and the show is, literally, messy. But, alongside plenty of blood and a paper-strewn stage, the direction and adaptation by Ricky Dukes is as neat and tidy as you could wish. A hugely impressive number of ideas push the play to its limits and preserve it at the same time.

“Mark the show”

Dukes exploits the theatricality of Marlowe’s text – this is a show full of shows. Faustus learns about space in a brilliant scene that mimics a modern Planetarium display. The famous encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins takes on the air of a burlesque. Oh, and the Pope dances the hokey cokey.

It’s all a bit mad and there’s a surprising amount of humour. The spirits that are conjured up have some singularly effective make-up around their mouths (take note of when it appears) and come and go with a curtain reveal. Even the blood Faustus signs his name with is fake, and no attempt is made to hide that. Which raises the question – does Faustus really get what he has traded his soul for? 

That Faustus might be cheated of his wishes is frightening. Is it all just in his head? And that isn’t the only scary thing about the production (that make-up again!). With some fantastic sound and lighting design (bravo, Stuart Glover and Sam Glossop) as the clock ticks down to the devil claiming his bounty, there is considerable tension. The final scene left me, as well as Faustus, gasping.

“Faustus must be damned”

A lot of the production’s success is down to taking the play’s religiosity seriously (no mean feat, nowadays). Faustus’ denial of God, his refusal to repent despite repeated opportunities, builds magnificently. We have a battle of minds and ego that is used to structure the show. And Dukes puts proper emphasis on what really damns the man – his despair.

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David Angland

All this praise and no word yet on a strong cast… sorry about that. Dukes makes this an ensemble show, with the performers mostly playing a variety of small roles and allegorical figures. If Candis Butler Jones stands out as Lucifer, well, the devil always has the best lines. Hamish Somers and Rachel Kelly also impress as particularly hard working: their appearances as Good and Evil Angels is an essential part of providing a framework for the adaptation.

The shows leads are fantastic. David Angland takes the part of Mephistopheles with a fastidiousness that adds chills. There’s a wicked sense of humour and careful reminders of what’s at stake. As Faustus’ sprit servant, he’s never too familiar – Angland shows an effective contempt for the Doctor. But, of course, it’s Faustus’ show and, taking the lead, Jamie O’Neill could be forgiven for the sin of pride.

O’Neill doesn’t leave the stage during the entire 90 minutes. While managing to convey plenty of awe, as well as passion and fear, this is a remarkably restrained performance. Every movement is measured, and Faustus seldom acts without thinking. And that’s important – Faustus is an intellectual and this is a cerebral play. That this aloof doctor can also connect to the audience and show increasing desperation is a fantastic achievement, making O’Neill heavenly casting for an out-of- this-world show.

Until 1 October 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Charles Flint

“Ride” at the Charing Cross Theatre

What a story! This new musical from Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams is about the life of Annie Londonderry (née Kopchovsky), who cycled around the world in 1895 and then became a journalist. 

The clever book makes the most of her adventures and draws important points about privilege along the way. The device of Annie pitching to newspaper editors is skilfully managed by director Sarah Meadows, utilising Amy Jane Cook’s clever set and costume designs.

The music is good, maybe pleasing more than memorable. The score is eclectic with a light period touch. And the lyrics are excellent – not just for their superb geographical rhymes, but by being consistently smart, unshowy, thought provoking and easy on the ear. I haven’t heard new songs this good in a long time.

What a woman Annie was. As a working-class Jewish immigrant in America, the odds were against her. But Smith and Williams tackle her potential role as an inspirational figure intelligently… because Annie made some questionable choices and was a liar. Or at least a shameless salesperson, ready to sing Everybody Loves a Lie with a smile on her face. And the show is better for her cynicism – Annie’s tall tales feel like a present Smith and Williams enjoying playing with.

The character is a gift to a performer, too – what a role! This troublemaker and trailblazer is brought to the stage by Liv Andrusier doing a great job with those fabulous lyrics and enforcing the impression of a woman who is enticing and complex. It’s all energy at first, which Andrusier makes infectious. Then there’s swooning romance. And, as we learn more about Annie’s difficult life, great pathos. It’s quite the journey, but Andrusier makes it look easy.

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Yuki Sutton and Liv Andrusier

Ride isn’t a one woman show. Joining in is Martha, played by Yuki Sutton. And how this second role is tackled is indicative of the skill throughout: the character is a device, but a supremely effective one. Drafted in by Annie herself to help tell the story, Martha takes on several characters, which gives Sutton a chance to impress: she plays two romantic interests, the French customs official Celine by far my favourite.

The clever part comes with how the playacting affects the character. By the end, Martha carries the show, briefly adopting Annie’s self-fashioned persona. This smart move suggests how role models work. Almost regardless of Annie herself, another young woman is now willing to put her foot down and pedal towards her dreams.

As for the show’s path, with a lead that’s a mix of Mabel and Dolly, with all that ambition and chops, someone needs to take this to New York. The sense of potential for the production is exciting – see it now so that you can boast about it later.

Until 17 September 2022

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Danny Kaan

Attenborough and his Animals at Wilton’s Music Hall 

Theatre company Clownfish delivers far more than its name implies. In this show, aimed at young children, we meet all kinds of animals from all over the world in the company of none other than David Attenborough (kind of).

Actually, when Attenborough doesn’t turn up, Jonathan Tilley takes his part. The impersonation is good. Tilley is also a female sloth, a mother orangutan and a regurgitating seagull. His co-star and fellow creator of the show, Jess Clough-McRae, plays all the other animals. It really is that mad an idea… and the kids love it.

There’s plenty of silliness – they are clowning, after all – in the way both move and the faces they make. Can you guess the animal before you’re told (this budding naturalist did very well)? The plasticity of both performers’ faces is remarkable. The noises they make show skills as mimics while they work hard to connect to the audience. 

The show is a heartfelt tribute to Attenborough’s TV work, sharing the humour and drama that come from watching the natural world. Clough-McRae’s anthropomorphising brings laughs and pathos. There’s a stunning reminder of environmentalism that uses just a single plastic bag – it brought a tear to my eye.

It is the simplicity of the show that impresses most: just two artists creating a world “teeming with life”. You can count the props on one hand and there’s no set. The sound design is brilliantly unobtrusive. The physicality on offer isn’t a matter of gymnastics (although it’s surely harder than it looks). Instead, it’s all about imagination – the performers’ and ours. Think about the audacity of the idea again! I can’t conceive of a better introduction to the theatre, as this show proves that you can do anything on a stage.

Until 3 September 2022

www.wiltons.org.uk/

Photo by Jacinta Oaten