“Falling Stars” on stream.theatre

Peter Polycarpou’s show fell afoul of the second Coronavirus Lockdown earlier this month. Thankfully, this version for streaming, produced by Ginger Quiff Media, is a real treat.

Based on a cache of sheet music – of “glorious forgotten melodies” and massive hits – found in an antique shop, the piece is a fantastic collection of songs from the 1920s.

Polycarpou’s delivery of the stories behind this musical miscellany is a lovely mix of facts and fun; he proves to be a great guide. The musical archaeology, aided by arranger Mark Dickman, is combined with sheer wonder at the talent and artistry of the past. The sense of joie de vivre Polycarpou admires, and brings to the stage, is grounded with details about the composers, some famous, others now obscure.

Sally Ann Triplett, in fine voice, aids the show’s pace. The variety of moods, reflected in the song selection, is also ably handled by director Michael Strassen. Triplett moves effortlessly between ballads and comedy numbers. The couple make a convivial pair; a sense of their friendship making even melancholy numbers strangely welcoming. A shared enthusiasm for the music of Charlie Chaplin is contagious: as Polycarpou suggests, Chaplin’s music for his films could make a show of their own… yes please!

Welcome though the recording is, I’m sure Polycarpou and Triplett would agree this music is best live, with loved ones and maybe a drink… I’m thinking a cocktail. Fingers crossed, two dates are planned 8th and 9th January; so, watch now and book for later.

Streaming until 29 November 2020

www.stream.theatre

Photo by Paul Nicholas Dyke

The Original Theatre Company

Artistic director Alastair Whatley has had a good lockdown. His Original Theatre Company started by filming its productions, The Croft and The Habit of Art, when denied a live audience back in March. Since then, three online productions, including the acclaimed Birdsong, have been enjoyed on the theatre’s own streaming site. Currently two shorts are generously available for free.

Watching Rosie

For personal reasons, I normally shy away from theatre about dementia. But this short film, first screened in August, is a wonderfully sensitive and inspiring piece with an important purpose.

Highlighting the plight of dementia sufferers, and their careers, during current times, Louise Coulthard’s video call scenario is moving and sweet. It focuses on loneliness as much as failing faculties.

Miriam Margolyes, Amit Shah & Louise Coulthard in Watching Rosie Original Theatre Company
Miriam Margolyes, Amit Shah & Louise Coulthard in Watching Rosie

Coulthard also stars as Rosie, who is calling her nan, and while the pain of the situation is clear there’s also humour. Miriam Margolyes plays the elderly Alice to perfection, showing the frustration and fear that this cruel condition brings.

As the title indicates, it’s Alice who is watching out for Rosie. Matchmaking in lockdown, with a volunteer who is bringing food, a date is arranged for her granddaughter! Reminding us of what Alice can still do manages to suggest possibilities as well as problems.

Mrs Goldie vs The World

A new addition, Nicky Goldie’s piece, which she wrote and performs in, follows similar lines. This time a middle-aged carer recounts looking after her mother during lockdown. Cooking and having a glass of wine as she asks “permission to rant” makes for a sociable and intimate feel that Goldie (pictured top) sustains with ease.

Mrs Goldie may claim to suffer from dementia herself, but she’s as sharp as they come. Sometimes, a little too sharp for her daughter so that, presumably based on real life, the piece has a frank and honest tone. This is a vivid, enjoyable, depiction of great affection. Mrs Goldie is a character you long to hear more about.

Aided by Goldie’s impersonations, a “grumpy old woman” comes to life with her independence and eccentricities. That she’s a touch snobbish is easily excused – anyone who corrects Julian Fellowes is fine with me – and it’s sincerely hoped that she is as “indestructible” as her daughter describes.

Coming next…

Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon is also available to view. This new online play written by Torben Betts boasts strong reviews. And there’s a Christmas treat in store: from 17 December Philip Franks has adapted an MR James ghost story that should be perfect for dark winter nights. Tickets are available at a special pre-order price of £12.50 now.

www.originaltheatreonline.com

“Emilia” from the Vaudeville Theatre

Archive recordings of shows can never match a live experience. But, thankfully, the energy that powers Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s 2018 play is so ferocious, exciting and contagious that this filming (far from the highest quality) still does this stirring play proud.

Lloyd Malcom uses the life of Renaissance writer Emilia Bassano to highlight modern concerns about representation, sexism and racism. I’ve seen it described as “mock history”, which sums up its irreverent tone if not quite doing justice to the anger in the piece.

That rage first: Bassano’s life story provides a framework for examining the prejudices women and immigrants face. There are efforts to highlight hope, too – calls for action as much as anger. If a balance was intended it has, surely, failed. But what’s wrong with angry? Bassano – “stifled, ignored, abused” – certainly had plenty to be cross about.

As for cheek, Emilia is a very witty play, with lots of jokes around period details and plenty of fun at the expense of men. Lloyd Malcom is a dab hand at deadpan lines that the cast deliver brilliantly. Unafraid of crudity or contemporary touches (a dance lesson proves a fantastic scene for Jenni Maitland as the Countess of Kent), the jokes are strong.

Lloyd Malcolm spoils us with ideas and loose ends result. There’s the notion of “muscle memory” that women have concerning feminine experiences that surely needs developing. And the matter of Emilia’s own privilege causes the play to stumble more than once. Part of acknowledging Emilia’s relative wealth, scenes with her as an educator (of working-class women) deserve to be a play in their own right.

This recording is of the show’s second outing after a premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe. Some of the charge of having Shakespeare as a character in Emilia might be diminished in the new location. In truth, this is not the strongest role, despite Charity Wakefield’s efforts. But the play isn’t hampered by the Vaudeville’s smaller stage and Luisa Gerstein’s music benefits from being indoors. Nicole Charles’ direction is excellent, keeping the action moving with well-placed pauses at emotional moments. Thanks to Charles the production is more contained and focused.

All involved excel at making Emilia clear. Getting hung up on period detail (well, any detail really) is avoided in favour of entertainment and polemic. That so much ground is covered, with such confidence, is aided by having Emilia represented by three actors. Which leads to a trio of fantastic performances from Saffron Coomber and Adelle Leonce, led by Clare Perkins. In a play whose project is to provide a voice to those ignored, these women prove the foundation for the production’s success.

Until 2 December 2020

www.emilialive.com

“The Death of England: Delroy” at the National Theatre

While its back catalogue of broadcasts from NTLive was a blessing during lockdown, being back on the South Bank for a show in real life is the real deal. For those lucky enough to have caught the brief window of performances, before a second closure, this new play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams was a very special occasion.

An introduction from creative director Rufus Norris, justifiably proud of his theatre getting back into action, added to the atmosphere. The caution shown around protecting customers is clear: there are allocated tables before being taken to seats and – beware – last orders for pre-show drinks is in the afternoon.

What of the play selected to welcome theatre devotees back? As well as the important subject matter of racism, Death of England: Delroy is topical. After seeing shows years old, it’s good to be reminded of how quickly theatre can respond to current concerns.

A sort of sequel to their show last year, Dyer and Williams develop a character mentioned in their previous monologue, Death of England. Recounting a “very bad day” Delroy has had – quite randomly – this likeable character runs into trouble with the police. Serious consequences include estranging him from partner and new-born child.

The show provides a starring role for Michael Balogun who is superb. It’s amazing to learn he was drafted into the project last minute. A rapid-fire delivery shows remarkable confidence with the script. And his level of energy over 90 minutes is astounding.

Welcome as the show is, it would be wrong to say it’s perfect. The Olivier is an unforgiving space at the best of times and the Covid-reduced seating feels particularly detrimental. All the more credit to Balogun for creating an atmosphere that ranges from convivial to confrontational.

The unusual conditions can’t be avoided. But Dyer’s direction creates problems too. It’s understandable that all aspects of design (the set by Ultz, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Pete Malkin) want to show off what the National is capable off. Like us, the team is thrilled to be back in the theatre. But does this show need any extras? Loud, dazzling, effects and some pretty naff props (including an explosion of confetti) are not needed with such a strong script.

Because the text itself really is excellent. The bravura language, which Delroy aptly describes as a “riot in my mouth” is provocative and funny. The ease with which ideas are raised is impressive, including arguments both enlightening and far-fetched (a motivation for voting to leave Europe is worth a raised eyebrow). There’s anger alongside a cool recognition of “colour class bullshit” that pervades all aspects of Delroy’s life. Putting the spotlight on privilege couldn’t be more timely; Dyer and Williams are experts at it.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Normski Photography

“Little Wars”: a rehearsed reading

As a second lockdown begins, there’s still a chance to get close to quality theatre, even if it is online. It’s hard not to be grumpy, though. This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play makes it painfully obvious how much better a staged production would be. Nonetheless, the history in the piece is interesting and the event boasts an excellent cast.

Set in the home of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the scenario at first is a dream dinner party or, rather, soirée. Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Parker are going to pop by. There’s plenty of wit as well as friction to entertain, led by the somewhat dotty old couple who are as eccentric as they are erudite.

Little Wars quickly takes a more serious tone as a war-time spy drama. Toklas and Stein’s final guest is the brave Muriel Gardiner, who smuggles refugees out of Germany on the very night France surrenders. She’s a fascinating character, capably depicted by Sarah Solemani, so it’s a shame that the role feels like a forced foil – a too obvious moral conscience for the play. Unfortunately, McCasland’s plotting is slow, a flaw director Hannah Chissick cannot disguise, as well as heavy handed.

The superb cast adds some sophistication. Debbie Chazen makes an excellent – drunk – Dorothy Parker (tricky on stage, let alone online). Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as the steely Hellman, a role that, like a too-aloof Christie (Sophie Thompson) needs further development. The real treat comes with our hosts. Ably supported by Catherine Russell as Toklas, Linda Bassett’s performance as Stein is astonishing. Full of fury as much as fun, this “rare kind of bird” is dignified, frightening and inspiring. Bassett makes Stein’s poetry sound natural and the way her cold anger is carefully exposed is brilliant.

It’s no surprise that the evening’s conversation never lacks drama or interest. The talk is crammed with detail about the women’s lives that shows a lot of research. It’s fascinating, but McCasland does not wear his learning lightly. A bigger problem comes with efforts to expand from specific biography to broader experiences. There are highlights: a preoccupation with memory arising from Stein’s potential dementia is very moving. But the battle of ideas that McCasland tries to set up as his finale – with Christie and Hellman coming across as downright odd – falls very flat. At least there’s some fantastic acting to enjoy along the way.

Until 8 November

www.littlewars.co.uk

Photo by john Brannoch

New Perspectives Theatre

Never short of novelty, the coronavirus lockdown has seen theatre makers more inventive than ever. New productions, such as those from The Original Theatre Company, and plenty of podcasts, such as Seeds, might have been expected. But there have also been installations, at the Donmar, and numerous live streams embracing Zoom. And here’s a particularly fun example of embracing technology from East Midlands-based company New Perspectives – the first drama I’ve come across on WhatsApp.

Stay Safe

Billed as a treat for Halloween, the scenario is simple. We are given access to a WhatsApp group for parents whose children go to the same school, one of whom asks about an unknown Mr Mathers that their child has been talking to!

As the story progresses, trying to track this character down, it has to be admitted that the content isn’t original. The piece is working within a genre after all. But it works well. If the twists aren’t unexpected, they manage to raise a smile.

A little spoiler as an example…that it turns out you and the group might be fooled about who is really texting isn’t a huge surprise. But it is an effective use of the format and a smart point; seeding suspicion and menace as well as raising the issue of online security.

Is it scary? So, so…I confess I didn’t want to watch the video clips in case I saw something! But more impressive is Jack McNamara’s writing for this novel format. ‘Eavesdropping’ on a group who aren’t quite friends proves funny. And McNamara turns the action dark and tense with ease. The characters, especially Phil and Meena, become clear and distinct. Correcting their mistakes or faux pas and using emoticons builds up personalities with surprising success.

It is traditional writing skills that really make Stay Safe a success and, as an experience, it’s engrossing and easy to recommend.

More from New Perspectives

There are more good ideas, too, with an eye on festive presents for theatre lovers. New Perspectives has worked with six renowned theatre names to produce limited edition Christmas cards that “reimagine traditional yuletide messages”. And their ‘show’ from earlier this year, Love from Cleethorpes, will also be available again – another different format for drama, this time a play on a series of postcards!

www.newperspectives.co.uk

“Howerd’s End” at The Golden Goose Theatre

As you’d expect from a show about the legendary comedian Frankie Howerd, Mark Farrelly’s play has lots of laughs. The material, after all, is excellent. But, as a gay man in the public eye before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Howerd’s story is more than just fun. With a clever twist and psychological insight, Howerd’s End is moving as well as funny.

Farrelly’s script works hard. I suspect it has been long in the making. Covering “sex, death and existential philosophy” is a lot on top of the biography. Ultimately, only two out of three succeed – fanciful digressions on time and mortality prove far-fetched and self-consciously poetic. Whimsy is what we want, but it doesn’t mix well with Weltanschauung.

Thankfully, when it comes to Howerd’s loves and legacy the piece is excellent.

The clever move is to make the play as much about Howerd’s partner, Dennis Heymer, as the man himself. The comic is a ghostly visitation the other can command. Making demands that would never have been met during their life together results in time travel through a difficult relationship. Farrelly knows the “broken-hearted clown” story is too common ground (although Howerd’s troubles were particularly dark). So, we are given a hero in Dennis who energises the play, being free of Howerd’s self-loathing and angry that a fear of intimacy has blighted life.

As for the delivery of this, often painful, love story – it really is superb.

Simon Cartwright’s impersonation of Howerd is remarkable. For a time I wondered if an uncanny physical resemblance was the key but it’s really down to mannerisms being spot on. Like his subject, Cartwright can make you titter with just a raised, suitably bushy, eyebrow.

Howerd could work a crowd like nobody else. Everyone here, including director Joe Harmston, has learned lessons from him. But none so more than Farrelly, who also takes the role of Dennis and draws in the audience expertly.

In character, Farrelly holds his own for comedy but adds an exasperation that raises the drama. That the men had the “tools for joy” in their lives, yet were not happy, isn’t played for innuendo – it’s simply very sad.

As a writer, Farrelly uses the audience, too, drawing us into a final fantasy that is sweet and romantic. Brilliantly, we all end up cooperating as witnesses… to a happy ending for Frank and Dennis that has a funny magic all its own.

Until 31 October 2020

www.goldengoosetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Jacky Summerfield

“Next Thing You Know” at the Garden Theatre

Shows about youth aren’t unusual, but a coming of middle age musical makes a nice change. Approaching their thirties, the characters in Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham’s piece want to be “less young” and are already hungover from their twenties…poor dears.

The hopes and fears, and a sense of surprise, about growing older that are presented are interesting enough. Cunningham’s book is clear. By accident or design, Next Thing You Know ends up the story of Waverly, a strong role for Bessy Ewa, a young woman deciding on her love life and whether to carry on trying to become an actor. If Waverley’s future decisions end contrary to expectations the piece is entertaining and amusing along the way.

Based around a bar on Sullivan Street, New York, Waverly’s friend Lisa provides a stand-out role for Amelia Atherton (who also gets the best songs). You could watch both women for a long time. Indeed, it’s odd we don’t get to see Lisa, a singer-songwriter, perform something she has written. But the men hanging around them are less appealing. Waverly’s wet boyfriend, who Nathan Shaw gets great comedy from, generates a little sympathy. But his salesman colleague has some oddly dated sexual politics – “shallow and sleazy” – that Callum Henderson’s best efforts cannot redeem. I’m not sure Waverly would really have much time for either man.

Next-Thing-You-Know-starring-Nathan-Shaw-and-Callum-Henderson-photo-NatLPh
Nathan Shaw and Callum Henderson

Rather sweetly, director Robert McWhir’s production has the super idea of casting graduates from 2020. A welcome move in a year so difficult for young performers, the whole cast are hungry to impress. They’ve clearly learned much from their training and McWhir’s evident skills.

The singing is good and serves Salzman’s credible music and lyrics well. In the mould of Jason Robert Brown, it would be nice to hear a richer sounding version of the score with more than a pianist and guitarist performing. There are fine tunes, but the lyrics sometimes make both comedy and sentiment effortful. More than once, lower stakes produce better results: a meditation on city life and a song about a one-night stand are highlights. 

Problems come with the show’s specificity; are the characters (not performers) convincing 28 year olds? You might think them immature. If not, you may wonder what their problem is and find them whiney. Both positions are exacerbated by the commonality and repetition of concerns – there’s lots of talk about signs and decisions. Salzman and Cunningham like a motif a little too much.

As well as more variety, it’s disappointing that Next Thing You Know collapses into a standard romance. And one dealt with far too briefly at that. It might be quirky that its characters embrace being ordinary… but it isn’t that inspiring! The solution seems clear enough – strengthen the suggestion that Lisa is pursuing her dream and develop the role as a foil. Just a little more work would have given the show a lot more weight. 

Until 31 October 2020

www.gardentheatre.co.uk

Photos by NatLPho

“Buyer and Cellar” at the Above The Stag Theatre

Jonathan Tolins’ sharp and successful one-man play is easy to enjoy. Using the extravagance of celebrity to look at fandom and fame in equal measure, this super smart script is full of knowing jokes that should guarantee constant laughter.

Stars don’t get much brighter than Barbra Streisand and to base a fiction around her home life means there’s more than enough material for an hour and half show. It helps to know about her career, but Tolins’ writing is strong enough for anyone to find the show funny.

Director Andrew Beckett appreciates the variety of humour he has to work with and the show’s pacing is effective: there’s the boredom of out-of-work actor Alex’s job in Streisand’s basement (it’s even weirder than it sounds) punctuated by moments of elation when he gets to meet ‘her’.

For all its merits, the production doesn’t quite match the show’s previous London outing at the Menier. The performer here is Adam Sidwell, who does well but doesn’t manage to land all the jokes. Sidwell is careful to stay on the right side of impersonation when delivering Streisand’s lines and good when taking on the role of his boss Sharon. But scenes where he also performs as Alex’s boyfriend aren’t so successful: the couple’s speculation on Streisand – which Tolins develops nicely – flip flops without the required finesse.

Streisand is always going to be more interesting than Alex. But shouldn’t we root for him a little more? Nonetheless, it is easy to share Alex’s escapism in Buyer and Cellar. And… nice; we could all do with something different nowadays and a comedy is good programming. Given their sturdy work, I for one have no wish to rain on Sidwell and Beckett’s parade.

Until 8 November 2020

www.abovethestage.org.uk

“We Were Having A Perfectly Nice Time” at the Omnibus Theatre

Shy of half an hour in length, Pedro Leandro’s play isn’t reticent when it comes to its themes of friendship and unrequited love. For such a short show, this two-hander is hugely satisfying.

The flatmates who discuss a possible romance between each other, made all the more awkward by their shared pessimism, are great characters with distinctive world views. Neither woman suffers fools, or each other, gladly. It’s hard not to like them very quickly and admiration for Leandro’s cleverly written banter instantaneous too.

Much praise goes to director Evan Lordan and performers Stephanie Booth and Hannah Livingstone whose deadpan deliveries bring out the humour in the piece. It must be tough to react so subtly, especially when the scenario is touching and heartfelt. That both women get so much meaning out of a monotonous delivery is fantastic.

This brand of miserabilism is smart. And, yes, appropriate for our times: that love is described as “like the flu” works well too. Cynicism isn’t always appealing but here it creates sincerity as both women realise that, beyond their negativity they want someone to “see us and say yes”. If you think the two would probably make a great couple, it only makes Leandro’s text all the more bittersweet.

Until 24 October 2020

www.omnibus-clapham.org