“Freud’s Last Session” at the King’s Head Theatre

As a battle between great minds, Mark St Germain’s play tackles big issues. Arguments are handled well and the performances in this UK première are strong. If debate is what you want, this off-Broadway hit has plenty.

It’s a meeting between arch atheist Sigmund Freud and the “most reluctant convert” to religion, CS Lewis, so it’s no surprise that the hot topic is the existence of God. To bring out the arguments around theodicy there are two world wars to discuss alongside both men’s troubles, including Freud’s cancer and his wish to end his life.

One problem it’s easy to see coming is the amount of exposition needed. St Germain presents discussion clearly and in context – elegantly so. But there’s still an amount of exposition it’s obvious the men themselves wouldn’t need. There’s a touch too much of “So, you’ve read my…” along with keywords to anchor the audience.

Freud's Last Session at the King's Head Theatre credit Alex Brenner

As an intellectual tennis match, the production is, inevitably, static. Wisely, Brad Caleb Lee’s design doesn’t shy away from this. Peter Darney’s direction keeps the ball moving, including suggestions of action aided by Sam Glossop’s sound design: an air raid is particularly effective.

That potential bombing allows us to see Lewis still traumatised by his experiences in World War I. It’s a great moment for Séan Browne, who takes the part. As with Julian Bird’s Freud, these are admirable, controlled performances never overplaying their characters’ fame. 

Freud’s illness – performed brilliantly by Bird – is difficult to watch. There’s a visceral quality to the pain that might be the most memorable thing about the play. Credit where it’s due – St Germain shows both sides of a complex argument well. But it’s the acting that made the show for me: strong studies that make legendary figures and powerful discussions feel alive.

Until 12 February 2022

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Hex” at the National Theatre

This ambitious new musical, an updated Sleeping Beauty, is a triumph for its designers. The Gothic-cartoonish costumes by Katrina Lindsay are superb. The lighting design by Paul Anderson is sublime. And the staging, from director Rufus Norris, is big and bold. If the show as a whole is underwhelming, it succeeds as a treat for the eyes.

Alas, how Hex looks is the best bit. Jim Fortune’s music is interesting and adventurous, but the show lacks big numbers and all the songs are poorly served by Norris’ lyrics. Tanya Ronder’s book has its moments, but twists on the tale either tire or aren’t explored. The motif of interior and exterior beauty is worthy but feels tacked on. And Ronder seems determined that we shouldn’t like the characters!

A fairy who loses her power is a great idea. But we aren’t given much reason to sympathise with this leading role. Of course, it’s great to see Rosalie Craig, who takes the part, on a stage. But her schizophrenic fairy doesn’t develop and – no matter how forcefully Craig sings – this can’t be disguised.

There’s a similar problem with our Sleeping Beauty (Kat Ronney) who is too much the spoiled brat and belts out every note. I had high hopes for her parents (I’d love to hear more from both Daisy Maywood and Shaq Taylor), but these roles desperately need another number.

An ogress as a mother is another idea with potential. And Tamsin Carroll’s performance is tremendous. But a song about coming to terms with eating your grandchildren – a kind of cannibal La Cage aux Folles – is simply a puzzle.

Throughout, there are moments that please. Having the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty come to life is great. As is a collection of Princes, who wake up and wonder what to do with their lives – these two groups have the best chorography and bring some fun.

It’s unfortunate for Hex that London has had another new fairy tale, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, so recently (and that Lloyd Webber got in first). Hex is smart and funny, too – but nothing new. Irreverent twists, strong female characters, and masculinity to laugh at are great, but we can see it all coming. So, the only real magic emerges from the strong design work. And that isn’t magic enough.

Until 22 January 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photo by Brinkoff-Möegenburg

“Trouble In Mind” at the National Theatre

Alice Childress’ 1955 play takes us behind the scenes of a Broadway show about racism in the American South. Focusing on the theatre, Trouble In Mind gets to the heart of issues about representation that are topical and important. And it does so with passion, intelligence and wit.

Childress’ anger isn’t hard to spot. There are difficult moments as the cast explores the play it is rehearsing. The story of one actor, who witnessed a lynching as a child, is incredibly powerful (Cyril Nri does this pivotal scene justice). Frustration with the play within the play – its skewered view of African American life – is compounded by the aggressions the performers face as they work with white colleagues, for a white audience.

The debate is nuanced even if Childress’ opinions are clear. Care is taken to make sure the show’s director character is no straw man. Objectionable, insufferable even, and a figure of fun, the performance from Rory Keenan makes sure we still take what he has to say seriously. Arguments about the compromises supposedly needed to get the show on stage are given space.

It is the humour in the show that makes it memorable. Trouble in Mind is a very funny play. All the hypocrisy could be painful but is brilliantly handled by both Childress and the production’s director Nancy Medina. Asides, verbal and physical, get laughs as well as provoking thought and showing tension. Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s performance as the formidable Millie is magnificent – a great character, superbly rendered.

Tanya Moodie’s performance in the lead role of Wiletta deserves the greatest praise. Having excelled in the role before, Moodie lives as much as performs the part. That’s an amazing achievement, given how the character flips from being a duplicitous old theatre hand to an exposed novice who wants to really act and do “something grand”.

The relationship with old and new colleagues (strong performances from Gary Lilburn and Daniel Adeosun, pictured) is a joy to watch. Wiletta is warm but steely, open yet suspicious, from one moment to the next. Moodie’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen – anytime and anywhere – and is a five-star experience that is not to be missed. 

Until 29 January 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Habeas Corpus” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

This early Alan Bennett play, revived by Patrick Marber, is an odd one. It’s a farce about sexual frustration among the middle classes. But with meta-theatrical touches that play with the genre, it’s an attempt to write this kind of comedy in a different way (the lack of a set tells you that much). Along with crudity, poetic moments focus on mortality. And there are touches of a revue, too, complete with songs. It’s novel, experimental even. But Habeas Corpus is more interesting than it is funny.

There are laughs. The sillier jokes are good and have aged best. Darker moments, leading to the cautious billing of the show as “from a less enlightened age” have immoral doctors and queasy Ortonesque moments. But Bennett is appropriately harsh about bad conduct. And, impressively, the women in the show are as sexual as the men. Yet those laugh-out-loud moments come from the cast performances rather than the script.

Our guide to proceedings, the cleaning lady Mrs Swabb, is great fun (and Ria Jones excellent in the part). Dr and Mrs Wicksteed, and son Dennis, are all looking for love and easy enough to laugh at… initially. But their desperation is double-edged, and strong performances from Jasper Britton, Catherine Russell and Dan Wolff (standing in for Thomas Josling) mean we come to care for them. Does feeling empathy make us laugh less?

It isn’t unreasonable to expect a comedy to be fun. But if that’s all you require, Habeas Corpus might leave you disappointed. Lust here is for life as much as sex, and there’s a weighty, existential, edge. There’s also an awful lot of loneliness in the play. Bennett’s mix of comedy and melancholy may keep an audience on its toes, but Habeas Corpus doesn’t allow relaxation into a really good time.

Until 27 February 2022

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Spring Awakening” at the Almeida Theatre

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical about teenagers is now 15 years old. In the crowded field of coming-of-age stories it’s still startlingly original. This strong revival by director Rupert Goold embraces the novelty of adapting Frank Wedekind’s fin-de-siècle play and harnesses the energy of a superb young cast.

Let’s start with that talent. The production boasts Laurie Kynaston in the lead role of Melchior. It’s easy to see why he won the Evening Standard Emerging Talent award, and his performance shows an uncanny ability to suggest a whole range of complex emotions. Similar skills are present with another award winner, Amara Okereke, who ensures the role of Wendla holds equal focus. Stuart Thompson’s moving performance as the troubled Moritz – whose suicide needs to be highlighted in a show sure to draw a young audience – completes a trio of superb leads.

There are snatches of other stories in Spring Awakening. Goold makes sure these don’t confuse. The whole cast get a chance to shine (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Zhen Xi Yong are both memorable) but are best at working together. The ensemble sounds fantastic – its work as a chorus is particularly strong. With the musical direction of Jo Cichonska, Sheik’s score sounds better, more mature, than ever.

Goold’s secret for the show’s success is the choreography from Lynne Page. Every movement shows the frustrations the teenagers are experiencing. There’s a fantastic energy, as you might expect, but it is the suggestion of containment that creates incredible tension.

In less uncertain times I’d put money on this production transferring – it is top notch. Goold is clearly keen for a transfer. Miriam Buether’s staging is effective but screams for a bigger venue (to many seats have a poor view) – let’s hope the show gets one.

Until 22 January 2022

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Bring It On” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s high school drama is a good musical…a very good musical. The score is strong, the lyrics (by Miranda and Amanda Green) are smart and the book, by Jeff Whitty, is neat. Cheerleader Campbell’s coming-of-age story is full of wholesome instruction. With knowing nods to make an adult audience smile, the show is worth seeing. Sadly, this production doesn’t do it justice.

Director Guy Unsworth’s touring show is never less than professional. Perhaps that’s the problem? There’s a cold edge to what should be a warm piece. Maybe the venue doesn’t help? The Queen Elizabeth Hall is great for classical concerts, but a musical feels out of place. Yet the whole affair feels stilted, as performers labour through set pieces (including impressive cheerleading) accurately – but with little sense of enjoyment.

The funniest roles, Alicia Belgarde’s Eva and Chloe Pole’s Skylar get laughs (as they should). But characters like Bridget and La Cienega come across as worthy rather than funny. Campbell’s entry to a new school is serious stuff! True, the role of Danielle (who Campbell must win over) has a lot to do – she questions all sorts of privilege. But the hugely impressive Vanessa Fisher, who takes the role, is undoubtedly capable of more nuance than Unsworth demands. Meanwhile, the guys in the show are just for laughs and end up close to tokenistic.

Star attractions fall into the same problem. Amber Davis takes the lead and is competent. But there is an earnestness to the role that is unrelenting. Belting out every note doesn’t help either. Former Olympic gymnast Louis Smith has some crowd-pleasing moments but, his athletic achievements aside, has too little stage presence. Nobody embarrasses themselves. And nobody looks as if they are having much fun either. Bring It On brings little cheer.

Until 22 January 2022

www.bringitonmusicaluk.com

“Peggy For You” at the Hampstead Theatre

Alan Plater’s 1999 play tackles two subjects. As a day in the life of theatrical legend Margaret Ramsay, it’s about a formidable and fascinating woman. And Peggy For You is also a play about plays. This strong revival, carefully directed by Richard Wilson, gives both topics their due: both are interesting but I’ll admit to preferring one far more than the other.

Both Plater and Peggy have plenty to say about plays. And Art with a capital A. Tricks and techniques of the trade are plentiful, some of them are funny (even for those of us who don’t work in the theatre). But the insights are heavy handed. It’s hard not to make this subject feel rarified. Meta-theatrical moments are clumsy.

Plater shows us three ages of the playwright. There’s the newcomer, the man of the moment and a former most-promising but now out of fashion. Trouble is, it feels all these descriptions should have a capital letter. The characters are well played by Josh Finan, Jos Vantyler and Trevor Fox. But each role is slim. Only Fox’s old-timer has much to say or do.

Plater suggests there is a high price to pay for plays yet doesn’t explore this idea enough. Another author kills himself. But this offstage character isn’t vivid enough to have much impact. What interests is Peggy’s cold reaction to the death. Indeed, all the way through the play, it’s Peggy who interests most.

A great source of anecdotes and one-liners, Plater gives a wonderful depiction of his own agent. Explicit that the play is “a pack of lies”, the strategy aims at creating a portrait close to the truth. His Peggy is complex and entertaining, the depiction cleverly affectionate while acknowledging her many faults.

Taking this starring role, Tamsin Greig’s performance is phenomenal. It would be all too easy to exaggerate this larger than life woman. Greig, while always funny, shows incredible control. Volatile emotions and a sharp intellect are clear, imperiousness is balanced with vulnerability. Ramsay was a woman to watch and Greig mirrors this – the performance makes for compulsive viewing. A bully the wrong side of loveable eccentricity, a passion for danger gives the character edge. Does Peggy’s commitment to the theatre excuse it all? No, but Peggy will choose a pub theatre over the National, and who doesn’t admire that?

Until 29 January 2022

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Cinderella” at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

There were long delays to the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical. Like many theatres, the show is still troubled by Covid as my struggle to get a ticket, and a delayed start when I finally did go, illustrates. But the spirit of making sure that the show goes on is alive and well. Gratitude and respect to those working so hard.

First some praise for the clever typography for the posters. The e and r form a shoe! It’s a small point, but indicative of how much skill and thought is behind every aspect of a show that deserves to be hit.

Working for the first time with Emerald Fennell, who wrote the book for the show, says much for Lloyd Webber’s spirit of adventure. The name on a lot of lips after the success of her film, Promising Young Woman, getting Fennell on board to update a fairy story is a smart move. But let’s not forget how adventurous Lloyd Webber has always been. Success numbs us to the fact that musicals about Christ or cats are bonkers ideas.

The tweaks Fennell has made to the story are smart. A “bad Cinderella” stands out for not caring about her looks – in her hometown of Belleville that’s a crime. It’s when Cinderella changes her mind, colluding with a Mephistophelean godmother beautician, that things go wrong. A feminist slant? Maybe, although Cinderella finds no sisterhood in the show. But the female roles are refreshingly strong and undoubtedly make the piece.

Nothing to be scared of

It’s great to see such a confident Cinderella. She has problems, of course, but her strength of character powers the show. While Carrie Hope Fletcher has won praise for her performance, I was lucky enough to see Georgina Onuorah take the role and a great job she did, too. Gifted some great lines, the humour feel fresh and the singing great.

Rebecca Trehearn in Cinderella credit Tristram Kenton
Rebecca Trehearn

Surprisingly, Cinderella isn’t the most interesting character. Both the Queen and her stepmother have more fun by being a little frightening. Rebecca Trehearn is a monarch with a past who might be a psychopath. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt brings a touch of Norma Desmond to a deliciously wicked stepmother. The heir to the throne isn’t Prince Charming (that’s his missing brother), but a sensitive soul who leads to the show’s explorations of masculinity – and isn’t that a toxicity to be scared of? Ivano Turco excels in the part.

Ivano Turco in Cinderella credit Tristram Kenton
Ivano Turco

The lyrics, from David Zippel, are intelligent. He is a safe pair of hands who makes the libretto worth listening to, as it’s sophisticated with the odd, well-judged, crudity. It’s a shame his lines are witty rather than laugh-out-loud funny.

Most importantly, the music is good. There is something here for all, with lots of catchy songs and poppy tunes that please. More traditional, orchestral numbers add some romance even if they don’t quite match. Cinderella herself sometimes sounds as if she should be in a different musical.

Costumes and sets, designed by Gabriela Tylesova, are all very clever. The dresses are just outrageous enough to raise a smile and the ‘cut-out’ sets suggest spontaneity. The action is kept swift by director Laurence Connor. Best of all, by not overstating the effort to be new and different, Cinderella wins respect. There’s enough campy fun to please all. But there’s also a sense of integrity. The show is interesting as well as great entertainment.

Booking until May 2022

www.andrewlloydwebberscinderella.com/

Photo by

“Come From Away” at the Phoenix Theatre

Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s heart-warming musical is a true tonic that’s guaranteed to raise spirits. It’s feelgood, for sure, but grown-up, too. Based on the true story of air passengers stranded in Newfoundland because of the 9/11 attacks on America, there are hard-hitting moments. But the folk of Gander, who looked after the ‘plane people’ forced to stay with them, show the very best of human nature.

Sankoff and Hein depict a cross-section of travellers and the local community that could be dizzying. Christopher Ashley’s direction is essential for clarity. The point is to show us the gamut of emotions and circumstances, to give us glimpses of lives before, during and after the crisis. With the cast performing multiple roles, several characters manage to stand out to great effect.

The music, inspired by Newfoundland’s Celtic heritage, is rousing, raucous and dramatic, managing to provide a real sense of place. And you will be humming the tunes the next day. If some lyrics are repetitious, they are always efficient. Even humour is crammed in. The key lies in using all members of the cast: their work as a chorus mirrors their characters’ parts in a close-knit community.

Fun comes from the eccentricities of the locals, established quickly and successfully. It could be an odd contrast with the trauma of those coming off the planes, but fear and anger are dealt with sympathetically. And it’s notable that metropolitan prejudices about small places are called into question aplenty. The joy of Come From Away is that it deals with a cliché – of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – so very well.

There is nothing ordinary about the dozen cast members who take on the responsibility of telling the story. They flit around roles with remarkable skill, and also manage to focus on key story lines that take turns to touch hearts, heads and funny bones.

The character of Hannah, worried for her firefighting son back in New York, is sure to stand out, but Gemma Knight Jones, who takes the part, is outstanding. Jonathan Andrew Hume and Mark Dugdale’s storyline as a gay couple does a lot of work to question assumptions and the performers are excellent. Another romance, between Kate Graham’s Diane and Alasdair Harvey’s Nick, is sweet. All the while, James Doherty’s mayor marshals the action. That’s only half the cast, so forgive me. The real achievement is the work of everyone on stage as an ensemble – moving together and sounding fantastic – bringing both energy and sensitivity to a great story.

www.comefromawaylondon.co.uk

Photo by Craig Sugden

“Cratchit” at the Park Theatre

‘Tis the theatrical season for Christmas carols. If you’re looking for something a little less traditional, then Alexander Knott’s new play is worth treating yourself too.

Cratchit is a spin on the Dickens classic. It uses the same characters and there are still ghosts. Bob, Scrooge’s clerk, is the focus. While the miserly master is haunted, Cratchit has his own problems to deal with.

Expanding on the poverty Dickens has already written about with legendary skill isn’t wholly successful. But taking a minor role in the original means there’s plenty of room to expand and Knott takes advantage of this.

We see an avuncular Bob at first. The surprise is that he likes a drink. John Dagleish is excellent with the audience and has fantastic charm. As Cratchit’s problems grow, the character darkens. The “painted smile” puts on as part of a cowering servility hides a good deal of anger. There are powerful moments dealing with fear and depression. And it’s a shock to see him contemplate suicide.

The role is an excellent showcase for a performer. Taking on other characters, including Scrooge, Dagleish’s acting is of the highest quality. Likewise, his co-star Freya Sharp who offers admirable support in a variety of roles.

John-Dagleish-and-Freya-Sharp-in-Cratchit-at-the-Park-Theatre-credit-Charles-Flint-Photography
John Dagleish and Freya Sharp

The script is competent, it holds attention. Knott’s own clever direction helps a great deal. It’s all going very well until the ghosts arrive. They are more future focused, fair enough, and come with surprises I won’t ruin. But the glimpses at life that restore Bob’s faith in Christmas are so rushed, they become nonsensical. Knott doesn’t give himself, his audience, or his ideas enough time.

Dagleish keeps up the good work. There is more for Sharp to do – and she does it well. And Emily Bestow’s set comes into its own – the design gets a big tick even if I’m not sure about why we visit the places evoked. If some parts of Cratchit disappoint, there’s a lot of enjoy.

Until 8 January 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Charles Flint