“While The Sun Shines” at the Orange Tree Theatre

There are plenty of laughs while Paul Miller’s triumphant production of Terence Rattigan’s brilliant comedy lights up the stage. This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. 

The wartime wedding of Earl Harpeden and Lady Elisabeth becomes a farce when she meets two Allied soldiers who make her think again about getting hitched. The trouble is a question of experience: blasé  Bobbie has been around, while Elisabeth is too innocent for both their good.  

Philip Labey takes the lead as the Earl with an “open boyish manner” balanced by a knowing touch: this toff is nice and not dim. Labey’s is a massive role marked by a generosity to colleagues that benefits all. And Labey has the ability to generate sympathy; for all the flippancy and fun, I wanted the marriage to go ahead. Rebecca Collingwood plays the intended, showing Elisabeth has a mind of her own. Collingwood’s depiction of wide-eyed innocence is funnier than you can imagine – howls of laughter greet the simplest statements. 

Rebecca Collingwood in While the Sun Shines - photo by Ali Wright
Rebecca Collingwood as Lady Elisabeth

Conor Glean is an appealing Lieutenant Mulvaney fresh off the boat from the US of A. The performance is neat and the humour gentle. Michael Lumsden and John Hudson play a bluff Major and a refined butler respectively – both to perfection. If Jordan Mifsúd’s Lieutenant Colbert got more laughs from me, put it down to ‘appy memories of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Mifsúd’s faux-French is a skilled work of genius. 

Sophie Khan Levy in While the Sun Shines - photo by Ali Wright_
Sophie Khan Levy

Really stealing the show is the man-eater and self-confessed trollop Mabel Crum. I wonder if she was Rattigan’s favourite part? Mabel gets laughs even when she’s not on stage. Sophie Khan Levy’s embodiment of this confident and caring character shows how essential the role is in this carefully constructed play. 

It’s Mabel who ends up in charge. Don’t be fooled that she’s continually sent to the kitchen. Prodding male egos in While The Sun Shines shows a subversive touch that has aged well. The distasteful attempts at seduction would have been as off for Rattigan as they are for us, but offence is deflated by how useless the men are! And it isn’t just one couple under the microscope here – it’s the institution of marriage. That Mabel stands aloof from it all makes her a character to cheer. Mabel gets the last laugh. The audience laugh all along. 

Until 8 January 2022 

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk 

 Photos by Ali Wright

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Charing Cross Theatre

Christopher Durang’s award-winning comedy is a Chekhov mashup that regular theatregoers should lap up. Full of clever references that are witty and sometimes silly. Durang’s admiration for his playwriting predecessor is endearing. But the question arises – will you enjoy the play without knowing your Russian classics?

I think the answer is yes. Without pretending I got all the allusions, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an effective family drama with plenty of laughs.

A trio of siblings (get it) bicker while strangers (yes, one wants to be an actress) challenge their routine. Masha is a successful actress and supports Vanya and Sonia financially, but the latter are frustrated by their comfortable rural existence. Masha has troubles, too – her toy-boy version of Trigorin (a good spin) is an indication of her angst.

Durang is justly confident that the closed environment and close observations of human nature will work – and he’s good with them. Sometimes it’s the more modern additions – jokes about Hollywood and a rant against social media – that jar more than the Chekhov. Preparation for a costume party feels a little like an extended sketch – but this highlight scene is excellent.

Best of all are Durang’s characters and the performances, impeccably directed by Walter Bobbie. The “monstrous” Masha is meat and drink to Janie Dee – she is simply marvellous. Michael Maloney and Rebecca Lacey, as the siblings pining for another life, have impressively moving moments in controlled performances. And Lacey’s impression of Maggie Smith is worth the price of a ticket alone.

There’s a strong debut from Lukwesa Mwamba as the star-struck ingénue. And Sara Powell’s eccentric cleaning lady is a fantastic creation (note how her predictions change from being doom and gloom). Charlie Maher’s Spike – attractive “except for his personality” – made me laugh the most, but pick your own favourite.

Durang may not wear his learning lightly, but he is a strong enough writer not to lose his identity. There are bitter touches, yet the quirky humour is gentle and distinct from Chekhov. We’re allowed to like everyone and laugh at them. Watching the family get closer, and starting to hope, proves heart-warming. And we’re even given a happy ending.

Until 16 November 2021

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Rare Earth Mettle” at the Royal Court Theatre

Al Smith’s new play takes us to Bolivia, where tech tycoon Henry Finn and a doctor called Anna bid to mine valuable lithium. Know who your sympathies lie with? It turns out that the former’s electric cars could save the planet, while Anna’s public health project is an ethical nightmare. The dilemma is contrived – most of the plot is just to frame arguments – but the play and Smith’s characters are entertaining.

Arthur Darvill plays the parody of Elon Musk. It’s OK – it’s obvious as it’s well done. There’s a base gratification as clichés we expect are ticked off. Smith doesn’t have to be sensitive (could we feel sorry for this neuro-diverse character at some point?) and Darvill is wonderfully overblown. There’s help from a troupe of not-so-yes-men and women (including good performances from Marcello Cruz, Lesley Lemon and Racheal Ofori) just the right side of sycophancy.

Anna the NHS doctor (actually, Strategic Director of the National Institute for Health Research) is even better: a true frosty Brit with gorgeous elocution brought to the stage by Genevieve O’Reilly. With big plans, presented with frightening calm, bribery and blackmail are nothing to her. There’s a fanaticism that is fascinating. In a play that lacks surprises, I was hanging on to O’Reilly’s every word.

Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court credit Helen Murray
Arthur Darvill and Jaye Griffiths

Smith is understandably anxious to make sure Bolivians in the play have their say. There’s time in the spotlight for Kimsa, admirably played by Carlo Albán, who lives on the valuable salt flat. And a fictional president, portrayed with conviction as well as cheek by Jaye Griffiths. It turns out both are canny politicians. If crowd-pleasing moments are wish fulfilment, it creates a good atmosphere. And plenty of questions are raised – about history and inequality – that are obviously important.

Issues aren’t scarce in this play. Rare Earth Mettle has an excess of ideas that are far from exhausted. Again, Henry first: his creative notions (credited to his messianic streak) could be challenging if explored more. With the Bolivian characters, there are big questions about the interests of an individual versus their community (local and ultimately global). It’s with our doctor that examining themes of responsibility sit easiest – after all, life and death decisions are literally her job.

The play isn’t short. But nor is it long enough to say a lot, given how much ground it covers. Plot and argument become rushed and too far-fetched. Silly is fine (it’s funny), but predictable is not and too much of the second half can be seen coming at the interval. Hamish Pirie’s direction doesn’t help much – like Moi Tran’s design, it’s inappropriately fussy. I’m not sure what snatches of dancing or a giant pendulum add. But plenty of laughs and strong performances make this an enjoyable play.

Until 18 December 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“The Ocean at the end of the Lane” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Neil Gaiman’s fantasy tale, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, is clever. An introduction to some metaphysics as well as the supernatural makes the story as thought-provoking as it’s entertaining. The piece is as much about childhood and parenthood as adventure, which makes it moving emotionally as well as being action-packed. If a little too attentive to its genre (which you either love or hate), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is brought to the stage with great style. 

Having a best friend, Lettie, who is some kind of witch proves a mixed blessing for our young hero. A play date results in the unnamed boy’s home being invaded by a monster who usually lives on the fringes of our reality! The creature, who transforms into Ursula (played very capably by Laura Rogers) controls a grieving father and gullible sister. Thankfully, Lettie (who isn’t really young) can magically help out. The plot is diverting enough – but solidly aimed at children.

Gaiman says his story is about memory, which doesn’t come across so much on stage. But having an adult character reminisce about the events of his childhood, and then perform as his own father, adds layers to the characters, which helps both James Bamford and Nicolas Tennant in their roles. Other characters are fun, if sketchy, such as the ‘Sis’ter, played by Grace Hogg-Robinson. But there are too many questions around Lettie’s motivation, skated over with the powerful performance from Nia Towle.

As with previous National Theatre hits for children (War HorseCoram Boy) the show isn’t scared to be dark, a little gory and sometimes funny – well done for trying on all counts. The gore is good, but the humour is unoriginal and there is too little threat. It’s really director Katy Rudd’s work that makes the show a success. Breathless and excited about adventure and magic, the piece convinces against the odds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The puppets (credited to Samuel Wyer) are as good as any I’ve seen on stage. Paule Constable has surpassed herself with lighting design. Above all, the soundtrack from Jherek Bischoff is superb – it’s no surprise it’s on sale. And Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is the key, well done (all the more welcome, since the dialogue is poor), with everyone moving props and acting all the while. Rudd has made sure the show eminently theatrical. Of course, fantasy on stage works! Imagination is the key to theatre and the genre – and the production harnesses this with great skill.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until May 2022

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Six” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ brilliant show is the kind of hit that warms the heart. From the Edinburgh Fringe to Broadway and now a new West End home, this musical ‘herstory’ of Henry VIII’s wives deserves its success. No excuse is needed to see it again (and again).

Let’s start with the performers. Pitting the queens against one another isn’t the spirit of Six – that’s one of many clever twists. And they are all fantastic. 

Suffice to say Jarnéia Richard-Noel sets the tone of the show perfectly with the first solo number. Hana Stewart’s Catherine Parr guides the show. Sophie Isaacs expertly handles the hardest number, for Katherine Howard, where Marlow and Moss change the emotional tone to make us think again about all those sexy pop songs. 

Make no mistake – there are six stars here. Collette Guitart (understudying on the night and the show’s talented Dance Captain) brings big emotion to her ballad – a huge achievement given how funny the show is. And Cherelle Jay shows herself as a delightful natural comedian as Anne Boleyn. Alexia McIntosh really has the funniest role, as Anne of Cleves. It is a joy to see a performer so in control of the room: McIntosh doesn’t just have the audience in the palm of her hand – she makes them happy to be there.

Alexia McIntosh in Six credit Pamela Raith
Alexia McIntosh

The mock rivalry between the Queens is thought-provoking and a neat commentary on celebrity culture. Underneath, they all bond, emotionally and as singers, to fantastic result. Best of all, the cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. And that’s saying something.

I did a disservice to the score at my first encounter. The music has far more references than the Spice Girls. And if I’m still not up to speed with exactly who inspires each queen, this short show has more hits than much longer musicals. It is a faultless collection of songs.

There’s an intelligence and sharp humour to Six that is not to be underrated. The importance of telling the story of the ‘divorced, beheaded and died’ from their own perspective belies how many laughs there are. Add a touch of fantasy as the ex-wives are represented as popstars and you get real magic. Long may this show reign.

Until 1 May 2022

www.sixthemusical.com

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Footfalls & Rockaby” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Not everyone makes a beeline for Samuel Beckett plays. It sometimes feels as if the legendary modernist is more beloved of theatre-makers than theatregoers. Fans will, of course, jump at the chance to see these seldom performed shorts, but director Richard Beecham’s stylish work and two brilliant performances should also secure appeal for a wide audience.

Footfalls

Charlotte-Emmerson-in-Footfalls-at-Jermyn-Street-Theatre-photo-by-Steve-Gregson
Charlotte Emmerson

A woman having bizarre conversation with an offstage voice might sound almost a cliché of experimental theatre. The woman, May, or maybe Amy, may or may not be talking to her dead mother. The voices address one another and then the audience.

The spectre of poor mental health haunts the piece and the appropriately ghostly character, depicted by Charlotte Emmerson, is mesmerising. Emmerson’s timing – so crucial for this piece – is spot on.

Beckett was specific about staging and instructions for lighting and sound – cleverly elaborated by Beecham and his designers Ben Ormerod and Adrienne Quartly. Within these constrictions, a performance of incredible control notches up the tension marvellously.

Rockaby

Siân-Phillips-in-Rockaby-at-Jermyn-Street-Theatre-by-Steve-Gregson
Siân Phillips

The sense of isolation for the lonely old woman in Rockaby is overwhelming. There’s a lot of philosophy again – what kind of existence does this unperceived character have? But sitting in her chair, looking for any sign of life with “famished eyes”, the piece becomes painful and deeply moving.

A brilliant performance from Siân Phillips brings home the emotion within the play. Phillips never finds it hard to be magisterial. And there is a dignity to the character that makes us take her wish for more life seriously. But there’s a frailty, too, which compounds a sense of sadness.

The rocking chair, with credit to set designer Simon Kenny, also becomes a character. And a very spooky one. Is it fanciful to say it has a life of its own? As with the sound design within Footfalls, there’s a quality far from lulling in the ceaseless, yet cleverly varied, presence of its back and forth.

Footfalls and Rockaby are late works, from 1975 and 1980, respectively. Minimal and experimental, they set the mind spinning. Concerning mortality and memory, we are presented with vivid, mysterious characters. That intrigue drives both shows for me. It may be simplistic, and far from grand intentions, but both pieces work as bizarre ghost stories that are strangely exciting as well as profound.

Until 20 November 2021

www.jermynstreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Steve Gregson

“Punchy! The Musical” at the Courtyard Theatre

It’s nicer to emphasis the good things from any trip to the theatre. After all, nobody sets out to put on a bad show. There is talent on and off stage at this friendly venue in Hoxton, but Punchy! is a show with serious problems.

The wafer-thin coming-of-age story follows the titular character (capably performed by Robert Hook) from an anti-climactic brush with the law to an unconvincing romance. Jack Terroni’s story, with a book by Kevin McMahon, drags despite being only 90 minutes long.

Punchy! is not the musical promised – rather, it’s a play with songs, and these are frequently interrupted and hard to hear. The songs, by Terroni, aren’t bad, but the sound quality is poor. And there’s a baffling amount of recorded music used considering a band is on hand.

Director Tiffany King does her best to inject life into the show and she has earned her money, dealing well with rapid changes in the emotional tone of the script. The choreography has its moments (possibly better suited to a screen than the stage), and the costumes are impressive.

The big issue comes with the characters. Various salt-of-the-earth types try to help our hero. And there are his Soul and his Ego, amiably depicted by Jaymes Sygrove and Peter Parker Mensah, following him around. If the trio sounds like an interesting idea… well, in practice, it isn’t.

It’s good that Soul and Ego are a ‘team’ and not simply at odds. And the chemistry between Sygrove and Mensah, like that between Hook and his love interest, played by Lucy Penrose, is good. But the babble spouted – including chats with the dead and a veritable choir of guardian angels – is awful. “It’s a struggle,” says Soul at one point. Yes, yes it is.

The attempts at humour are terrible and the dialogue leaden, painfully blunt and insultingly didactic. There’s only one thing worse than a character asking, “What’s the point of it all?” And that’s another character answering them. Nearly every line sounds like something from a self-help book. Hold on…

Here’s the plot spoiler. Punchy’s journey is based on Richard Barrett’s book, What My Soul Told Me, and his seven ‘levels of consciousness’. The latter are helpfully reproduced in the programme. Whether The Barrett Academy is useful, I can’t say – but applying such ideas to a drama hasn’t helped here. Base characters on a diagram and they end up sketchy. It’s little comfort to those involved but, in this confused show, at least it’s clear what has gone wrong.

Until 21 November 2021

www.punchythemusical.com

Photo by Guido De Mara

“”night Mother” at the Hampstead Theatre

This revival of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play offers the chance to see brilliant performances from Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night. But be warned – the play deals with the subject of suicide in a provocative and strange fashion.

Night takes the role of Jessie who decides to tell her mother, played by Stockard, that the evening the play recounts will be her last: she calmly reveals that she is going to kill herself. She’s planned it all, including telling her Mama all about it.

Questions arise quickly. Does Jessie have the right to take her own life as she argues? Do her reasons make sense? And what of this sharing. Can that be rational or even, in some way, kind?

It is the powerfully calm tone of the play that proves striking. Credit to Channing and Night for their consistency. With touches of dark humour, the frank discussions, flipping from mundane domestic details to family secrets, avoid histrionics.

night Mother gains much of its power from a cool look at life in a small community. But does Jessie have too many troubles? Epileptic, divorced with a troubled child and agoraphobic – her problems cloud the play’s cerebral intentions. Jessie’s anhedonia is heartbreaking but make her arguments unreliable.

You may have sympathy for Jessie and her desperate wish for control. But the pain she inflicts on her mother is unquestionable. Channing excels in showing her character is far from the “plain country girl” she claims, revealing a repressed intelligence and wit. Trying all manner of persuasion, cajoling then cruel, Channing is awesome to watch.

There is a bravery to Norman’s writing and Roxanna Silbert’s impeccable direction that is commendable. And an originality that impresses – trying to be objective about such an emotive topic is beyond me. Far from easy viewing, ‘night Mother is hard to recommend but is an evening sure to live in the memory.

Until 4 December 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Tender Napalm” at the King’s Head Theatre

With a series of exciting monologues last year, prolific playwright Philip Ridley had a good lockdown. But I’m not alone in wanting Ridley’s work back on stage. This expert revival of a real gem is a thrilling treat.

Tender Napalm is a romance, told with startling originality. The memories and fantasies of a couple swing from love to hate. The stories they concoct between them are gripping – passionate and violent.

Tales you’d “hardly believe” feature unicorns, UFOs and a common or garden tsunami! In suggesting spontaneity, while delivering Ridley’s poetic lines, performers Adeline Waby and Jaz Hutchins are superb.

Kit Hinchcliffe’s minimal design is a perfect blank canvas for colourful displays of imagination. A potentially static piece, Sam Angell’s bold work as movement director is strong. The occasionally childlike movements are particularly unsettling.

What is poisoning the relationship we watch, the motive for a kind of therapeutic exercise, is surely the death of a child. Ridley isn’t explicit: emotions, like the scenarios, are fluid. But whatever is wrong creates increasing tension.

Yet tenderness is present too. It’s in allowing the care between the characters to show that Hutchins and Waby excel. A change of pace towards the end of the piece is exquisitely handled.

Director Max Harrison has a thorough appreciation of Ridley’s brilliant text. Best of all, Harrison balances a peculiar dark humour with Ridley’s astonishing imagination. The “universe of dreams” this production provides a view of is, in all senses of the word, fantastic.

Until 20 November 2021

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Mark Senior

“The Normal Heart” at the National Theatre

Several theatrical responses to the AIDS crisis might be labelled ‘ground-breaking’. Epics by Tony Kushner, or the recent marathon effort from Matthew Lopez, as well as William H Hoffman’s As Is, could all make the claim. Larry Kramer’s play from 1985 deserves the label, too. But, as this excellent revival inadvertently demonstrates, breaking ground doesn’t always age well.

There’s no doubt you will be moved by the central love story between characters Ned Weeks and Felix Turner, played by Ben Daniels and Dino Fetchser with such tenderness. The usher who told me to get some tissues ready knew what she was talking about. Fetchser is brilliant at showing romance alongside his character’s illness, while The Normal Heart marks a career high for Daniels – it’s an extraordinarily demanding role that he delivers with conviction.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels

As Weeks starts to campaign for research into the then new disease his partner suffers from, Daniels makes the urgency and desperation palpable. The history of neglect in the early years of the AIDS crisis is still shocking. With the help of Liz Carr’s Dr Brookner, the advocacy organisation Weeks helps found makes the play a microcosm for the topic of activism. Almost incidentally, there are strong characters for Daniel Monks, Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris, who show different personalities – and arguments – within the campaign.

Weeks’ anger and energy are phenomenal (the role must be exhausting) and driven by a fierce intellect. The play addresses issues of identity and community, reflecting political tensions through energising polemic. The ideas are interesting, although Kramer’s handling of them is far from even. And there’s another strong role when it comes to Weeks’ calls for acceptance: scenes with his brother, played so well by Robert Bowman, could be explored further.

For all director Dominic Cooke’s efforts to emphasis activism and Weeks’ abstract thinking, neither is what the play is about. The piece has such a definite purpose that a tension within the revival becomes increasingly clear.

The Normal Heart was political in a very direct way. With its statistics and documentation, Kramer wanted to educate and hold others to account. He wanted to incite action and inflame emotion. Debates are detailed. The pressing question was how to best get results. No matter how skilfully conveyed, that question is no longer relevant. Even the staging in the grand Olivier Theatre feels incongruous, despite Vicki Mortimer’s cleverly stripped-back design. A show with the capacity to tour smaller venues feels like the intention.

Written as a call to action for an event now thankfully past, both play and production command respect but feel lost in the present.

Until 6 November 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks