“Babies The Musical” at The Other Palace Theatre

Plenty of work has gone into Jack Godfrey and Martha Geelan’s musical that, mostly, pays off. If there’s only so much you can do with a coming-of-age story, Babies gets a lot from its small scenario: a group of schoolchildren are given electronic babies to look after and find out a lot about themselves as a result.

Geelan’s book, her first effort for a musical, is neat and complemented by her fine direction. With a firm structure, well-sketched characters are ably marshalled. And this class is full, making Babies a real ensemble affair, with everyone getting a moment in the spotlight and making sure there is plenty of enjoy. It’s easy to see a long life for the show at drama schools and showcases. But things do take a while to settle down, to give the audience a lead and to point towards something to learn.

Although the show is tongue in cheek throughout, moments when it is most knowing are best. References to a boy band are a big hit, while school swot Jasmine makes a great villain role for Lauren Conroy. But a romance between Toby and Jacob, although sweet and played well by Bradley Riches and Nathan Johnston, feels like a distraction. And what a lot of pressure these kids are under – so much loneliness and stress. You don’t doubt the sincerity and you can argue for realism, but none of it is a surprise and it is a touch oppressive.

Babies-inset-credit-Matt-Crockett
Bradley Riches and Nathan Johnston

There are smart touches. But is the show missing a trick? Jokes for a slightly older audience (say, how your friends change when they have kids) could be elaborated. Rather, the focus is on the kids themselves – cleverly, no adults appear – which is fair enough, but the humour does suffer. Most of the time the performances outshine the comedy: Max Mulrenan and Jaina Brock-Patel are excellent as a young couple who handle their new baby in very different ways. And the anxious Lulu might well disappear if it weren’t for a strong performance from Lucy Carter.

Godfrey’s music is good. Importantly, more than one number is very catchy, and the music weaves together well. It’s a ‘proper’ musical and not just a collection of songs. It’s nearly all high energy – you might miss a change of pace – but it goes down well. The lyrics are less successful, through strong voices mask some of this, especially when the ensemble sings together.

We do settle, almost, on Leah, whose central drama is good and allows Zoë Athena to show her skills. The irony that Leah is trying to parent her mother is a touch obvious. But her story allows the show to develop towards the loose notion that friends are just as important as family (so time spent establishing everyone else wasn’t wasted). And there’s a reassuring takeaway at the end, as the kids accept that they aren’t ready to be adults.

If Babies is too niche to be a massive success, it works because of very talented young performers, clearly thrilled to be on stage, creating a terrific atmosphere. I sincerely hope it grows into something big.

Until 14 July 2024

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

Photos by Matt Crockett

“A View from the Bridge” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Arthur Miller’s 1955 play is far from his best work. Yet this revival, which comes from Bath, has a strong cast, while director Lindsay Posner succeeds in making the text swift and exciting. If the play has dated badly, it still provokes thought, and excellent performances make the most of the characters.

Miller’s setting is specific and vividly evoked – a community of longshoremen who live and work near Brooklyn Bridge. When two “submarines”, illegal immigrants from Italy, arrive at the Carbone home, the already uncomfortable balance between Eddie, his wife Beatrice, and niece, Catherine, results in tragedy.

There are plenty of ‘themes’ in A View from the Bridge. Many feel topical. There’s immigration, of course, where Miller explores how sympathy for those arriving from a poverty-stricken continent comes with conditions. And a contemporary audience will note Eddie’s toxic masculinity and the domestic violence in the play. Posner handles the tension well: Beatrice and Catherine suffer psychologically, and Kate Fleetwood and Nia Towle are terrific in these roles.

A-View-From-The-Bridge-Pierro-Niel-and-Callum-Scott-Howells-credit-Johan-Persson
Pierro Niel-Mee and Callum Scott Howells

Catherine’s affair with newly arrived Rodolfo isn’t written as well – it seems included to reveal Eddie’s inappropriate obsession with the orphan girl he has raised. While Callum Scott Howells brings a strange glamour to the role of Rodolfo (you can imagine a young girl falling for the character he skilfully creates), Towle seems wasted in her part. Similarly, Rodolfo’s brother, capably performed by Pierro Niel-Mee, has little to do. In short, characters are only foils to Eddie.

“Blue in his mind”

Given the play’s focus, having a star like Dominic West as top billing is essential. West is truly commanding, so imposing that his hold over his family convinces. And he brings an affability to the role that makes Eddie occasionally, appealing. But there is a problem with humour, at least for some audience members, when it comes to Eddie’s homophobia. A conviction that Rodolfo isn’t “right” shouldn’t be something to laugh at. From Eddie’s perspective, it’s a genuine concern, even if he is using it as an excuse to hide his jealousy. There’s no doubting Eddie’s anger (West is excellent here), but, overall, torment is underplayed – it should be bigger than his unrequited lust. Catherine’s observation that Eddie is “blue in his mind” could be made more of.

It’s hard to have sympathy for Eddie. West is good at making him creepy, but the production might have more nuance and offer something fresh if his mental health was given more time. Still, even without it, the play is sometimes slow. A pivotal moment, when Eddie betrays the Italians, illustrates how drawn out it can be. And the role of a lawyer, a kind of narrator, played by expertly by Martin Marquez, is downright cumbersome. All the performances here are strong enough not to need so much pointed out to us. The cast is the reason to see this show.

Until 3 August 2024

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Book Of Grace” at the Arcola Theatre

In Suzan-Lori’s Parks’ excellent play, honourably discharged US soldier Buddy returns to his estranged family. One of a trio of fantastic characters, Buddy is superbly performed by Daniel Francis-Swaby who, appropriately for his role, is a strong orator. Buddy is counting “strikes” against his father and against “the man”, and we all know nothing good happens after the third one. Parks plots brilliantly making this cerebral also a thriller. Francis-Swaby reveals how disturbed his character is with skill. Director Femi Elufowoju jr makes the most of the script and cast to make sure not a single ball pitched is missed.

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Peter De Jersey and Daniel Francis-Swaby

The subject of Buddy’s anger, guilty of “unspeakable” acts never specified, is his father Vet, an unhinged border guard played with passion by Peter De Jersey. Vet’s obsession with the “fence” he patrols (the play dates from 2010) comes close to comical. But Parks explains its importance with conviction. Despite being a terrifying figure, De Jersey makes Vet vulnerable; when he snarls about “my home” the delivery expertly conveys his fear as much as his anger. The play scores as a family drama as much as it provides insights into American politics. Vet is scary, every moment with him is a roller coaster, and his instability provides the play with many twists.

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Ellena Vincent

Vet’s victim, and the heart of the piece, is his wife Grace, whose scrapbook of good news stories gives the play its title. Bearing in mind her husband has dug a grave for her in the garden, her optimism surrounding family reconciliation might seem misplaced. Yet a commanding performance from Ellena Vincent means we believe in Grace’s quest for positivity and her taste for Cat Steven’s Peace Song doesn’t seem silly…it is important. The book, another device that allows Parks to structure the play so well, becomes a precious object; its fate is painful. But living up to the virtue Grace is named for provides optimism, insight, and a home run for a play that is both bleak and brilliant.

Until 3 June 2024

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photos by Alex Brenner

“Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Hampstead Theatre

Danny Sapani’s star performance makes Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play fly. The script, neatly directed by Michael Longhurst, is a quality affair: considered, solid, maybe a touch slow to start. Sapani makes the most of the play’s strong moral dilemma and brings out the text’s focus and intrigue.

Sapani takes the part of Walter ‘Pops’ Washington, a former black police officer who was shot by a white rookie while off-duty. How’s that for a smart take on police violence? And if you think it needs a twist, well…Guirgis’ plotting is so strong it doesn’t deserve a spoiler.

Black, white, blue, and green

An eight-year battle for compensation brings money into the mix. Although Washington stresses his motivation is a matter of principles. Add his wife’s death and it’s no surprise our hero has been left a mess. Or has he? Maybe…he was troubled before. Throughout the twists Sapani commands attention. He is believable as both stubborn and dignified, gruff, yet loveable, easy to dislike and winning admiration. Washington is a strong creation, brought to life with style.

Martins Imhangbe
Martins Imhangbe

Unfortunately, the main character overwhelms the show. Other roles – all well-acted – don’t just pale, they fade away. Washington’s misfit family come too close to caricature. There are funny moments, with strong performances from Tiffany Gray and Ayesha Antoine. And moving ones, played by Sebastian Orozco and Martins Imhangbe (the later especially strong with a great mix of anger and frustration). But they are all just foils, circling around the central figure.

For a London audience, Sapani’s recent role as King Lear will spring to mind. Especially as the character’s rent controlled apartment is under treat and his kingdom about to disappear! Indeed, Washington’s ironically regal touch makes for great moments. But it’s the differences that are more interesting and come in the form of former colleagues, capably played by Daniel Lapaine and Judith Roddy. Their efforts to persuade Pops to settle his law case are strong scenes. Longhurst brings out considerable momentum. They show us different power dynamics, with a balance of discomfort and humour the whole show aims for but isn’t always present.

Until 15 June 2024

www.hampsteadthetare.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Twelfth Night” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

This sparky new production is bold and zippy. It marks the welcome return of Shakespeare to this gorgeous venue – apart from a brief Romeo and Juliet in 2021, productions have focused on younger audiences. Director Owen Horsley offers a big, luxurious show with lots of fun and music.

Everything happens in a bar, named, in neon, after our heroine Olivia. The characters are either customers or her entourage, musicians dressed in Ryan Dawson Laight’s clever sailor-inspired outfits. Fabian is renamed Fab Ian (which tickled me no end) while Sir Toby is a drag performer and takes to the mike, along with Olivia’s fool, Feste.

It’s all eye-catching, a drunken atmosphere isn’t a bad idea, and although sometimes the single setting proves cumbersome, it isn’t a bad innovation. But underneath, the production is a traditional affair. It is spoken wonderfully. The shipwrecked twins who arrive and cause havoc, played by Evelyn Miller and Andro Cowperthwaite, sound especially good.

Music should always play a big part of Twelfth Night. And music suits this venue well. The production goes all out and composer Sam Kenyon has been busy. The band adds atmosphere and pace, with Shakespeare set to song very nicely. It’s a shame the quality of the delivery isn’t consistently high, even if Jule Legrand’s Feste and Michael Matus’ Sir Toby have plenty of charisma.

Like all good productions, Horsley searches for insight, to show us something new. Here it is with Olivia and, thankfully, Anna Francolini, who takes the role, meets the challenge. Olivia is the star turn in her own bar, getting the best of Kenyon’s numbers, carrying her brother’s ashes around in an urn, overt in her attraction to Viola, and often bizarrely dressed, she is a larger-than-life character who threatens to unbalance the show. For instance, Raphael Bushay, as would-be suitor Orsino, doesn’t seem to stand a chance. And Olivia ends up alone… with the idea that Sebastian stays with Antonio. I did wonder if this Olivia might be a little too mad… but Horsley is on firm ground, after all the character questions her own sanity.

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Anita Reynolds

It all makes for more laughs than romance. But Horsley doesn’t shy away from the melancholy of many characters or more vicious moments in the play. “Sad and merry madness” is the key. It should be no surprise that the balance between the two can be stark. So, while the tricks masterminded by a particularly strong Maria (Anita Reynolds) are nasty, Richard Cant proves a sympathetic Malvolio. It’s all a gorgeous night out, but, as it should be, a thought-provoking one too. Great, grown-up fun.

Until 8 June 2024

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Richard Lakos

“Spirited Away” at the London Coliseum

Based on the phenomenally successful Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli film, London audiences now have the chance to see this stage adaptation, direct from Japan. The show has the air of an event and Fans are sure to love it.

The production looks and sounds fantastic. Jon Bausor’s constantly moving set design is superb, likewise the lighting from Jiro Katsushiba. The costumes by Sachiko Nakahara could be on display in a museum. With every aspect of design, details thrill.

There’s a big orchestra for Joe Hisaishi’s score – a soundtrack I’m sure many would listen to at home. And a lot of dance: the choreography by Shigehiro Ide (also credited with staging) is both ambitious and otherworldly. Most notable is a brilliant performance from Hikaru Yamano as ‘No-Face’. What the cast achieve, given how many of them are covered and wearing masks, is impressive.

Spirited Away is vast and technically ambitious. The puppetry (Toby Olié) runs through nearly every scene and is strong.  The result is that every movement is planned (including some witty plays with the music) and John Caird’s direction has to have the utmost precision. The use of projections is, thankfully, limited; the show works as a live event – but that level of control does mean little sense of spontaneity.

Caird is also the show’s adapter and has, again, done well. This is a simple story of a young girl called Chihiro who finds herself trapped in a magical world. Events are fast paced. There is some urgency about the fate of her parents, transformed into pigs by a witch called Yubaba. But this journey is one of discovery rather than a quest: Chihiro follows instructions rather than working things out. She is a passive heroine. Ironically, the role is high energy, barely off stage and running around all the time (four performers are listed – Kanna Hashimoto, Mone Kamishiraishi, Rina Kawaei and Momoko Fukuchi – giving an idea of how demanding the role is).

While the story is entertaining, with little sense of peril, it is hard to see much drama. Likewise, the romance fails to convince and is underexplored – Chihiro’s potential boyfriend being a magical figure who can turn into a dragon doesn’t help. These may be memorable characters but they lack psychological insight. And the humour is limited. 

If the style has shortcomings, they all reflect Studio Ghibli’s popular and acclaimed work. The show has wider appeal than another hit from the same source, My Neighbour Totoro. But there’s still a sense Spirited Away is primarily for kids. Clearly it crosses over – box office figures tell you that. But it is the world created, rather than what goes on it that interests.

Until 24 August 2024

www.londoncoliseum.org

Photo by Johan Persson

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Wyndham’s Theatre

In the satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm there’s a quip that Eugene O’Neill’s plays get in trouble with the RSPCAudiences for being so long. It’s true, you won’t get out of the theatre until quarter past ten if you see Long Day’s Journey into Night. And depending on your seat, you might well be in pain. But this revival from director Jeremy Herrin is a reminder of what a masterpiece the play is. Hard work but worth it.

The piece is remarkably static; as the family Tyrone struggle with their problems, we get a collection of talking heads. Despite drug addiction, drinking and a terminal illness discovered, nobody moves very much. Herrin holds his nerve and keeps the action controlled. Jack Knowles’ lighting is dark and even Tom Gibbons’ excellent music and sound design is minimal. The result is engrossing in a distinctive manner.

Focus is needed because O’Neill’s play is big. There are so many ‘themes’. As a family drama you expect parenthood and home to figure. The “shabby place” Lizzie Clachan’s set makes so sparse offers no distractions. Meanwhile the marriage between James and Mary, and the sibling relationship between James Jr. and Edmund, are all examined with forensic detail. And don’t forget that Long Day’s Journey into Night can be considered a kind of ‘memory play’. Characters are stuck in, or looking to, the past. Is this starting to sound like CliffsNotes? It’s been mentioned already… there’s a lot to think about.

mother’s boy and daddy’s pet

Such material makes fantastic roles for a star-studded cast. Brian Cox takes the lead as patriarch James and is suitably commanding. This is a generous performance; even the fact that James was an actor is underplayed. Cox is the lynchpin of the play but never steals the limelight. The production is an exciting opportunity to see Patricia Clarkson on the London stage and her performance as Mary is terrific. The “constant suspicion” her character suffers from is clear and, as the play goes on, develops a nuance Clarkson’s colleagues feed off. Mary’s drug addiction is never sensationalised, like her son in the play, a role admirably performed by Daryl McCormack; these are characters living with their substance abuse. O’Neill was ahead of his time in seeing addiction as an illness.

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Laurie Kynaston

Still, it’s Laurie Kynaston who, in making so much in his role as “mother’s boy and daddy’s pet” Edmund, makes the biggest mark. The character is surely closest to O’Neill himself and is written with a ferocious edge, but Kynaston brings a vulnerability to the role that strips away much of his posturing.

As if all the personal drama were not enough, there’s a discussion of pessimism verses optimism hardwired into the text that Herrin brings out brilliantly. James may be a miser but he also looks on the bright side, in conflict with the younger generation’s admiration of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. Yet even Edmund (so “degenerate” he likes French poetry!) gives us a magnificent philosophical passage about becoming one with nature that provides a highlight.

These characters have big problems and existential angst, there’s so much about thwarted ambition and loneliness, it is easy to see the piece as depressing. But there’s as much affection as pain in the play. From the opening you can sense how the arguments contain love, something gentler. Behind the quips about snoring is the fact that nobody in this house sleeps. They have too much on their minds. But note, everyone is worrying about everyone else being awake.

Until 8 June 2024

www.longdaysjourneylondon.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Cord” at the Bush Theatre

Parenting, with a focus on fatherhood, is the subject of this new play written and directed by Bijan Sheibani. Intense and poetic, it sees a trio of brilliant actors examine emotions and experiences around having a child.

Ash and Anya are new parents. Overwhelmed by their love for little Louie, the everyday dramas – around grandparents or restarting a sex life – are overshadowed by bigger issues. Sheibani handles tension with subtlety, as do Irfan Shamji and Eileen O’Higgins, who take the roles and are convincing as being sleep deprived and on the edge. There’s a continual refrain that problems are not a big deal. So when arguments escalate, the atmosphere is especially fraught.

Ash’s status as a new father – indeed his whole life – seems overshadowed by his mother, Jane, who suffered from post-natal depression. Again, there is a surface calm, brilliantly portrayed by Lucy Black. But any pretended ease – over not seeing her grandchild or worrying for her own son – is effortful. When the arguments really start, there are painful home truths. Black’s performance is controlled and powerful.

All the emotion is emphasised by the composer and cellist Colin Alexander, who joins the actors, his harmonics echoing the action brilliantly. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design is also strong, with a huge light box overhead subtly shifting colours. The whole production is stylish, with a heightened air, but it’s a shame some of the miming isn’t better.

Jane doesn’t have a lot of time for the possibility that Ash might be suffering. Does the audience? It’s a further tribute to Shamji’s performance that his character has appeal (although I wonder how much responses to the role depend on whether or not you’ve given birth). Ash does seem to want the focus of the women to return to him. And that’s hard to get past.

There’s another problem that might prove increasingly annoying… Ash’s Dad is around – he is mentioned several times and the two talk. It seems odd that Ash doesn’t speak to his own father about fatherhood. At least, there might be an explanation as to why this conversation doesn’t happen. It’s a stumble in such a detailed, focused work. The script is so skilful, I’ve no doubt the decision is deliberate, but it seems such a glaring omission that it skewers the whole play.

Until 25 May 2024

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Rose Theatre Kingston

Director Atri Banerjee’s excellent 2022 revival of the Tennessee Williams’ classic benefits from a strong focus on the text and a sensual creative vision. Both are aided by Rosanna Vize’s brilliantly sparse design: the set is a neon sign of one word – Paradise. The hopes and wishes of the characters are contrasted with the bare space before us.

There are a few small props. And the pole the sign is on rotates. But the stage is used to tremendous effect by movement director Anthony Missen. The cast hovers or runs around a circular platform – stepping on to it becomes a statement – and frequently walks backwards. Every moment is considered, every move worth watching.

Light and sound become especially important, showing brilliant work by designers Lee Curran and Giles Thomas. The latter’s music for the show is fantastic, full of romance and melancholy, while the use of microphones (when characters argue, whisper or make telephone calls) is smart. And what you hear is surprising, too (let’s just from say from now on a particular Whitney Houston song will make me think of this show). Curran’s lighting includes golden glows and candlelight, suggesting love or nostalgia, or harsh shadows and a shocking flash for stark realisations.

All this before a collection of impressive performances – a further commendation for Banerjee – is addressed. The production is spacious – literally – but also in terms of the room given to develop characters. Consequently, the dreamlike quality Williams tells us about builds.

Kasper Hilton-Hille in The Glass Menagerie
Kasper Hilton-Hille

Kasper Hilton-Hille takes the role of Tom. He’s perfect casting as an angry “selfish dreamer” with just the right balance of quirk, cruelty and regret (by the end, he has tears in his eyes). Although Tom leads the show as narrator with easy command, Banerjee makes sure this is a particularly even production, with time for every character.

There are strong, intelligent performances from Geraldine Somerville and Natalie Kimmerling as mother and daughter, Amanda and hypersensitive Laura. At first, Amanda may seem a cold scold, but she shows a genuine affection for her children that is moving and steers us away from Williams’ exaggerations. Laura might seem not “peculiar” enough… at least until she wears a neon dress for gentleman caller Jim’s arrival. And it is with this scene that Kimmerling comes into her own.

The conversation between Laura and Jim has some of their dialogue repeated and includes a dance that Laura imagines. It illustrates how special Laura is. Her vivid imagination becomes a thing to cherish, her dance a parallel with her brother Tom’s poetic ambitions. The extended scene also means a larger role for Zacchaeus Kayode, who makes Jim vulnerable as well as charming, an admirable figure. While the production is superb throughout, I suspect this scene was key for Banerjee. It really is brilliant and makes for a particularly moving menagerie.

Until 4 May 2024 then on tour

www.rosetheatre.org

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Machinal” at the Old Vic Theatre

After an acclaimed run in Bath, this revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play comes to London. It’s a confrontational piece based on the execution of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband in his sleep. The stylised script, described as Expressionist, is matched by Richard Jones’ direction and is unquestionably memorable. But a word of warning: the play is a challenge and at times downright unpleasant.

Treadwell’s version of Snyder is called Helen and is quite a puzzle. She’s super-sensitive to touch and noise and mentions smells more than once. She reacts violently to stimuli with physical spasms. Taking the lead, Rosie Sheehy gives a suitably intense performance that is easy to admire. It’s a mammoth, exhausting role that will surely, deservedly, earn award nominations. The depiction is visceral, but it is also oppressive.

Through a series of (literally titled) scenes, we see Helen’s desperation at home and her unhappy marriage. Then there’s a one-night stand that she reacts to with unexpected passion but characteristic ferocity. The character is clearly ill, but it’s left to the audience to try to work out how – and to question how much sympathy to have for her. Treadwell’s career as a journalist might help here. Is she somehow trying to present events objectively?

Tim Francis and Rosie Sheehy in Machinal at the Old Vic
Tim Francis and Rosie Sheehy

Other roles are small, but strong performances make them memorable. Helen’s lover and husband, Pierro Niel-Mee and Tim Francis respectively, are excellent. They don’t quite know what to make of Helen either! The performance from Buffy Davis, as Helen’s mother, is more complex. As with those Helen meets at work or within the legal system, characters have a deliberate flatness and are occasionally comic, which makes you wonder: are we seeing the world all through Helen’s eyes?

The large cast works in a small space, Hyemi Shin’s set makes the stage tiny, so that Jones’ staging is hugely accomplished. All the movement (credited to Sarah Fahie) is controlled – mannered and alienated – while Adam Silverman’s superb lighting design creates yet more claustrophobia through spooky shadows and a lot of strobes.

It all grates. Of course, that’s the point. And theatre doesn’t just entertain. Jones and his committed cast take tremendous efforts to discomfit us (and nearly two hours without a break makes sure of this). Sheehy really is remarkable, and there are moments in Machinal that made my skin crawl. It’s an achievement, of sorts, but not one for all tastes.

Until 1 June 2024

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan