“Love and other acts of violence” at the Donmar Warehouse

There is nothing easy about Cordelia Lynn’s new play. Given that it looks at anti-Semitism, and the legacy of violence through the prism of a troubled relationship, the fact that it’s difficult to watch isn’t surprising. The shock is that the play lacks power.

Setting up connections between a historic pogrom and its effects on a single couple living much later is an intriguing idea – the kind of question theatre should be addressing. Good intentions and topicality aside, the subject isn’t well handled.

Being deliberately vague makes the piece too hard to follow. That it’s set in a generic near-future, in a Fascist Poland, takes a while to work out. I’m sure there is some point to being so generic, but too little context makes the action and connections opaque and frustrating. And we are robbed of preparation for the play’s final scene, set in a past that hasn’t been addressed adequately.

There are problems with the love affair too – lacking chemistry, it’s hard to believe in it. A political poet (named, sigh, ‘Him’) is energetic and superficially appealing. ‘Her’ is a scientist who has to come around to his enlightened thinking as her life is impacted by populist politics. But the characters are uneven: she far more interesting, imaginative and full of surprises. Snippets of poetic internal dialogue strive achingly hard to be profound but add little.

The series of short scenes, dropping the audience into dramatic situations, are sometimes funny and often bold. And the acting is good. Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock give committed performances, the latter being notable as a professional debut of great confidence. But Lynn’s skill as a provocateur ends up wasted with vague arguments that aren’t as original as the theatricality of the production.

For the show is strong visually. Credit to director Elayce Ismail and an excellent technical team. The lighting design by Joshua Pharo is innovative, especially when it comes to disturbing scenes of violence. And Basia Bińkowska’s set, with a surprise for the finale, is superb. That last scene takes us to 1918 and Lemberg but I’m not sure I’d have worked that out without a programme.

Lynn isn’t obliged to write for a simple soul like me. Pointers to the past might be enough for some, and it’s clever to have a play that looks to the near future flip into the past for its conclusion. There is a charge as Mothersdale arrives in the character of a soldier to confront Weinstock in the role of her grandmother. But I wasn’t interested enough in a future already seen to bother as much as I should. The subsequent bleak union, thankfully separated from most realities, is too divorced from dramatic interest.

Until 27 November 2021

www.donmarwarhouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Foxes” at Theatre503

Dexter Flanders’ carefully modest play is an impressive character-driven family drama. Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, Foxes is a winning piece that is easy to recommend.

Daniel’s church-going family opens its home and heart to his pregnant girlfriend Meera when she is rejected by her Muslim parents. But the family is torn apart when Daniel comes out as gay. It’s the play’s next move that really surprises.

The plot is part of Flanders’ skill and strategy to question the nature of acceptance – and what we compromise on to gain it. Presenting complex, contradictory emotions makes this debut play mature.

It seems a shame to define the strong characters in Foxes in relation to David – they are all so good. Arch yet adorable Meera and her sister-in-law Deena are brilliantly elaborated by director James Hillier and performers July Namir and Tosin Alabi. They don’t just present arguments, but are recognisable people that you care for.

July Namir and Michael Fatogun in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
July Namir and Michael Fatogun

Both young women light up the stage. As a stark contrast, Anyebe Godwin, playing the man in Daniel’s life, does a brilliant job of showing the dark toll that living in the closet has taken on a bright young man. His clandestine existence gives the play its title.

Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin

What I suspect is the origin of the play – Daniel’s coming out scene – is another highlight. The scene is stunning. Not least for Doreene Blackstock, who plays Daniel’s mother with such ferocity and tenderness.

Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock

So, Flanders can write characters. The off-stage father who all mourn is further proof – he is a tangible presence. But it’s the central role, played by Michael Fatogun, who really grabs the attention. Confusion isn’t easy to show on stage, but Fatogun manages to convey the trauma and elation of his first gay kiss brilliantly. Throughout, Daniel’s youthful bravado and sensitive intelligence are made clear. It’s a performance, and a role, to dream about.

Breaking up Flanders’ short scenes might be handled better by Hillier, as Foxes is slightly longer than needed. The production’s projections are impressive but feel unnecessary. And I’d welcome a stronger sense of place than Flanders provides. But these are minor quibbles against a strong show.

Chances for Daniel to change, through several scenes in Act Three, build momentum nicely. A series of potential conclusions impress – and depress – by turn. How will Daniel and his family solve their dilemma? Dexter appreciates that any happy ending is going to be messy. How many lies will each character put up with? One certain truth is that everyone should see this play

Until 23 October 2021

www.theatre503.com

Photos by Adiam Yemane

“Hamlet” at the Young Vic

The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.

In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.

Tara Fitzgerald in Hamlet credit Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald

Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.

Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell
Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell

As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency. 

This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.

Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.

The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.

Until 13 November 2021

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Helen Murray

“Shining City” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

A ghost story that isn’t interested in the supernatural? That’s the idea that makes Conor McPherson’s play original. Therapy sessions for John, who thinks he is haunted by his wife, are combined with scenes from the life of his therapist, Ian. But Shining City doesn’t have much time for spooks… or does it?

McPherson highlights how our perceptions shape our lives – not just John’s hallucinations but Ian’s history, too. Whether they appreciate that they are deluded or believe they are taking control is open to debate. These are lives that seem lonely or stuck. The characters are indulged but interesting, and McPherson’s telling of the tale is excellent

Without doubt, McPherson writes great roles. Rory Keenan as Ian is in every scene and is fantastic. And there’s strong support from Brendan Coyle, Curtis-Lee Ashqar and Michelle Fox. 

Might Coyle’s John be funnier? McPherson is famed for his dark wit, even if this play is restrained, but humour isn’t on director Nadia Fall’s agenda. As Coyle recounts “all the silence” in his troubled marriage – behaviour that now makes him guilty – you can appreciate the depth of a skilled portrayal.

The quiet power of Ian anchors the show. A lot of time is spent listening to others talk and an unrushed Keenan becomes fascinating to watch as he suggests the slightest touches of not just boredom, but of someone hiding the fact that they are bored! Balanced with revelations (and questions) about the therapist’s past and future, showing different sides of his character, it’s great stuff. Nonetheless, Fall takes the slow pace too far, which – combined with some lengthy scene changes – dilutes tension too much.

Even if this production is a narrow view of what the text offers, the writing and performances are strong enough to earn it plenty of stars. 

As the characters try to convince themselves that their lives are getting better and their perceptions improving, McPherson wants to be clear – those perceptions are only personal. If John buries his guilt, might Ian, somehow, be about to inherit the ghost? There’s a surprise in store that makes sure you leave the theatre with goosebumps.

Until 23 October 2021

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Tokyo Rose” at the Southwark Playhouse

Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin have a strong true story for their new musical. Framed around the trial of Iva Toguri, accused of treason for broadcasting Japanese propaganda during World War II, Tokyo Rose has plenty of potential. Regrettably, the telling of the tale has too many problems.

Maya Britto makes an appealing lead in the title role. Yoon and Baldwin do well with the character and the dilemma of an American stranded in Japan, trying to hold on to her identity. A mixture of naivety and conviction makes Toguri endearing and Britto has a strong voice.

There’s the fascinating idea that, with her prisoner of war colleague Major Cousens, the radio show Toguri presents will subvert propaganda. Humour will be used to fight a war from inside Japan. But the radio show we hear too little of just isn’t funny.

Maya Britto in Tokyo Rose
Maya Britto

The idea gets lost in a dense biography. The central scenes of the trial are good. But the show’s book (with additional work from William Patrick Harrison, Hannah Benson and Jonathan Man) makes the plot cumbersome. As director, Benson’s efforts to make the show speedy add a nervous energy.

There are more serious issues. Harrison’s music has dramatic moments and drives action well enough. The score is admirably diverse. But too many sentimental songs are a drag. And the music is consistently upstaged by poor lyrics – clumsy and frequently clichéd.

A hard-working cast does its best, although its work as a chorus needs tightening. Performers impress by taking on lots of roles. Lucy Park is a highlight in several male parts: she gets to inject some humour and has a strong scene after America drops the atom bomb. Credit to all for tackling Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus’ ambitious choreography, even if success is mixed.

As a final disappointment, Toguri’s long struggle for justice results in Tokyo Rose wilting. There’s a fiery spirit to the show with the suggestion that America, rather than the unfairly-treated Toguri, should be on trial. But this is abandoned for a bland end. Letters get delivered in a rush and Britto struggles to portray her character ageing. There’s little sense of triumph or achievement for our heroine – or the show.

Until 16 October 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Steve Gregson

“Relatively Speaking” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Director Robin Herford’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic is a well-crafted and high-quality affair. Much like the play itself.

Young Greg and Ginny, who we meet first, become rapidly engaged despite his suspicions and her worries. Taking the roles, Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey convince and intrigue as young things in love… if warily so. Random gifts and phone calls cause confusion.

An older married couple, Philip and Sheila, come next. The relationship is equally well observed, with long-standing power struggles exquisitely performed by Rachel Fielding and James Simmons. Philip’s affair with Ginny is the cause of her anxiety and a dilemma: she wants it over with and he doesn’t.

When the couples meet, confusion ensues and the comedy really gets going.

A slow start, then (and a pace Herford doesn’t rush), but one that builds to a farce that is original and quietly subversive. As an early Ayckbourn, from 1967, some social mores need to be recalled: confusion about Ginny’s illegitimacy isn’t going to get many laughs nowadays. But it’s still clear how bracing the satire is intended to be. And it should be noted that the two roles for women are excellent, their empathy for one another moving. Our sympathies firmly lie with the naive Greg and the long-suffering Sheila – a fact Cromwell and Fielding exploit well.

Ginny is complex and Philip a clear villain. With both roles, you might suggest Ayckbourn wants to question how funny a comedy about adultery should be? The dramatic irony, ridiculous coincidences and assumptions mount up. But these laughs have a queasy edge. After all, there are incestuous implications and an attempt at blackmail. There’s more to Relatively Speaking than meets the eye (or the genre), which makes the play fascinating as well as funny.

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Until 9 October 2021

“Leopoldstadt” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Start your play with a Jewish family in turn of the century Vienna and an audience is sure to have expectations. Tom Stoppard knows this, of course, there’s little Tom Stoppard doesn’t know. But the craft behind his new history play is a marvel. And the emotional power of Leopoldstadt every bit as strong as you’d imagine.

Starting in 1899, things are convivial and a little confusing. We’re introduced to Hermann Merz and an extended family that – like the cast – is huge. As we see them grow up, and the family grow, it’s tough to keep track. Thankfully, Aidan Mcardle and Faye Castelow take the lead as Mr and Mrs Merz, with marital troubles and his conversion to Christianity, to focus on.

Faye Castelow in LEOPOLDSTADT photo credit Marc Brenner
Faye Castelow

The discussions are fascinating and highbrow – after all, this is Vienna and they are Jewish! Identity, mostly, but all manner of politics and culture. There’s a sense of excitement and pride about the city that roots the play. Stoppard sets out issues clearly – it’s a great lesson in intellectual history – but also makes debates feel alive as the characters live them.

Admiration for the cast grows as their characters age. Mcardle and Castelow triumph as Stoppard takes us to the end of their characters’ lives. Jenna Augen’s Rosa, an American relation, is also a highlight with a performance that goes from strength to strength. And it is a thrill to see relatively small roles so fully developed. Sam Hoare is just one example as a British journalist who marries into the family. Director Patrick Marber has neglected nothing, like Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s exquisite costumes, the attention to detail is winning. A sense of grandeur and respect appropriate to the subject infuses the show.

If there are slower moments, the dramatic point behind the depth and detail brought to Leopoldstadt becomes clear as history progresses. A family encounter with Nazi’s is difficult to watch. Seeing the characters, we have so deftly been made to respect and admire, cowered and humiliated is painful. What happens feels unbelievable. Shocking. And that’s quite an achievement when we all know the awful history.

Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto
Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto

Stoppard gives us the space to think about history. A scene set in 1955 focuses on the encounter between a younger generation: Leo, who escaped to Britain, and Nathon, who has survived a concentration camp. If Sebastian Armesto and Arty Frouhsan play the roles broadly, they match the peculiar underlying tension to the scene which compliments the extremes of their experience. As Leo learns the fates of his family from Augen (who makes Rosa’s suffering palpable) we are made aware of how close we’ve become to them all leading to a conclusion of intense theatrical power.

Until 30 October 2021

www.leooldstadtplay.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Small Change” at the Omnibus Theatre

Peter Gill’s exceptional play isn’t easy. But, with the aid of this excellent revival from Both Barrels Theatre, it is an experience worth every effort. 

Even at its simplest Small Change is a play about memory as much as about the particular memories of a young man called Gerard. His life story shows us working-class Cardiff from the 1950s and 1970s that is interesting enough. But it is the telling of the tale that makes mind-blowing theatre.

Gill’s dense, poetic writing is beautiful, if demanding. This is a long play, but at times I wanted it to pause to appreciate the language more. As Gerard, Andy Rush’s delivery of the script – verse, really – is a marvel. The linguistic acrobatics are matched by a fantastic physicality to the whole production.

Gill’s subject is memory in general

As well as Gerard, we have his mother, his neighbour, her son Vincent, and their memories, too. Gill’s detail is so great – and the performances so good –that you might argue that the play is about any one of them.

Small-Change-at-the-Omnibus-Theatre
Sioned Jones and Tameka Mortimer

Certainly, Gerard’s relationship with his mother is extraordinary and leads to a magnificent performance from Sioned Jones. For all her frustrations about her “swine of a kid”, their closeness shines through. From supportive to claustrophobic, the changing dynamics are riveting. 

The next-door neighbour’s mental health problems are explored by Gill with sensitivity and depth: qualities reflected in the performance from Tameka Mortimer. Small Change‘s angle on the lives of working-class women is authentic and inspiring.

Small-Change-at-the-Omnibus-Theatre
Toby Gordon

Meanwhile Gerard’s best friend Vincent is as fully formed a character you could wish for. Toby Gordon’s wonderful depiction brings out a fascinating intelligence and independence. 

So maybe I’ve got it wrong? Small Change is about so much more that Gerard’s soul-searching reminiscences.  Because the memories recounted are brilliantly interwoven and seen from many angles. The life choices and trauma of each character are revealed from individual perspectives. 

The scraps of memories, conversations, observations (from different times of life) flow with dizzying speed. Wrongs and sufferings are circular as the give and take of personal relationships creates a web that’s powerful, but let’s be frank – hard to follow. Gerard is the vector of the “hard slog” of memory: working out the past and how it impacts the future isn’t easy for him or the audience.

“The hard slog”


Director George Richmond-Scott revels in the play’s complexity and his work is, as a result, bold and brave. It’s easy to imagine how static Small Change could be (it’s one of those plays that you want to read). But Richmond-Scott injects an energy into the production that matches the verse. Rush is eye-catching, but I became obsessed with the way Jones used her cardigan to show her character ageing. Wonderful stuff.

There’s guidance about what is going from Lex Kosanke’s excellent sound design. But it is the sculptural set from Liam Bunster that proves a revelation. The rust-coloured benches and a box look as if Donald Judd’s artwork has found a practical application. The set becomes a beach and a playground as well as a door or a window. Thanks to movement director Rachel Wise, it’s creatively negotiated around, jumped and balanced on, with images vivid enough to match the script. And, with this script, you can’t praise higher than that.

Until 2 October 2021

www.omnibus-clapham.org

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Deciphering” at the New Diorama Theatre

It’s easy to appreciate that theatre company curious directive’s show is the most technically ambitious staged at this super venue. The New Diorama is tiny and what Zoë Hurwitz’s set achieves is remarkable. Regrettably, for all director Jack Lowe’s efforts at making sure the show actually works, the piece itself achieves little.

Abseiling actors are just the start. With performers above and below a stage full of surprises, as well as projections and headphones to hear the show through, we are taken backwards and forwards through time. The story follows one woman, Elise, at different stages of life and takes us exploring in an Indonesian cave full of prehistoric symbols.

Lowe manages this time travelling well. A clear performance from Stephanie Street anchors the show and there is a particularly challenging role for a child (well done to Asha Sylvestre at the performance I attended). That the personal relations in Elise’s life are slim is a relatively small problem.

What Deciphering does with its ambition – its scope as well as execution – is disappointing. There’s an exploration of creativity and communication (in a classroom as well as a cave). But the thinking is woolly. On top of this, an investigation into time shows us different paths Elise could have taken in life. The ambition to visualize time on stage is impressive. But we end up with Sarita Gabony (our third Elise) dropping down on a rope and asking us what we want to be when we grow up. Identity seems to be all about your job as Elise suggests that instead of being a paleo-archaeologist, different “versions” of herself could be all manner of equally interesting and prestigious professions. Isn’t she lucky.

A very earnest young teacher, which Lewis Mackinnon can do little with but play, well…earnestly, and an irritable academic (great work from Amanda Hadingue) are the professionals who shape Elise’s life. But both characters are forced too close to cliché as they have to help or hinder Elise. There’s a strong sense of wonder when it comes to the symbols in the cave, which I suspect was the inspiration for the show: with Hurwitz’s help, the scene is a highlight. But Deciphering descends into platitudes. The show desperately wants to be profound. Forcing in personal growth for Elise, we conclude with the weak advice that “if you are brave you cannot fail”. I beg to differ.

Until 2 October 2021

www.newdiorama.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.


A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.


Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.


As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.


Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.


Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton