“Orlando” at the Garrick Theatre

The star casting of Emma Corrin should, quite rightly, attract an audience to this new play based on Virginia Woolf’s classic novel. Corrin wears their heart on a variety of gorgeous sleeves while addressing deep questions about the identity of the gender-swapping century-traversing character lightly. “Who am I?” interests as much as torments this iconic figure, and Corrin is as energetic as emotional.

For all Corrin’s achievement, it is playwright Neil Bartlett who impresses me most by producing a piece that gives us Woolf’s work… and so much more. Starting with the Elizabethans, Bartlett brings in Shakespeare (from the sonnets to Hamlet to The Merchant of Venice), Woolf, of course, but also a nod to Chekhov, touches of bawdy and even some Kander and Ebb. It’s all tremendously clever and fun. The script is as witty as it is intelligent, as approachable as it is erudite.

Emma-Corrin-and-Deborah-Findlay-in-Orlando-photo-by-Marc-Brenner
Emma Corrin and Deborah Findlay

The playful and mind-bending in Woolf’s novel is made to fit on stage marvellously. Michael Grandage’s superb direction takes every chance to enforce theatricality and the result is engaging throughout what feels like a very brief 90 minutes. The pace is startling, yet observations on history and prejudice are clear. The action is guided by the brilliant Deborah Findlay, who plays Orlando’s equally long-lived maid and gets some of the best gags. The sparse staging uses Peter McKintosh’s superb costumes to take us through time and show transformations in simple, effective style.

Orlando-company-photo-by-Marc-Brenner

Bartlett’s Orlando is also about Virginia Woolf. The author isn’t just a character – she is a chorus, with nine performers donning comfy cardis and specs. What would be the collective noun for that? Surely not a pack of Woolfs? The show has too much generosity for that…a Bloomsbury of Woolfs? No, a room of Virginias! The group take us through the writing of the novel, remind us of Woolf’s lectures, while Bartlett’s script shows her as an inspiration. How the work affected Woolf’s life, as well as some of her own story, is interwoven in a moving fashion. And the cast takes on a variety of other roles – different ages and genders again – providing moments in the spotlight for Lucy Briers as Elizabeth I and Millicent Wong as an 18th-century sex worker.

Fluidity is all, and Grandage appreciates that theatre can explore this particularly well. And there’s more. Orlando lives for centuries, but the search for love is always relevant. The show isn’t just contemporary in addressing “Ladies and Gentleman and Everyone”. Constraints imposed by others versus definitions claimed by oneself are examined… and exploded. Background plays a part, with a topical concern for ‘authenticity’ that seems appropriate for a piece so big: Corrin is a star very much of the moment and clearly revels in the radical ideas here. Bartlett presents fluidity on the West End stage with an unapologetic touch that is gleeful. The show becomes an optimistic celebration. Like conditions for women, a recurring theme given its due, things are getting better. All that history has a point, it’s leading somewhere. What is Orlando’s favourite time? It’s now!

Until 26 February 2022

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Here” at the Southwark Playhouse

Clive Judd’s Papatango New Writing Prize-winning play bravely tries an audience’s patience. A thoughtful look at grief, and a novel kind of ghost story, the play’s tight focus and slow pace show confidence. That the domestic drama we spend time with doesn’t quite justify two hours is not all Judd’s fault.

The design by Jasmine Swan is disastrous. A gauze veil that stands for the walls of the room the play is set in proves hugely frustrating. What little the set achieves in spooky moments (thanks, really, to Bethany Gupwell’s strong lighting) cannot make up for being able to see so, so little throughout the show. It is a terrible idea.

Sympathetic direction by George Turvey and fine performances by a talented cast sustain a first hour as we get to meet Jess, her parents Monica and Jeff, and prodigal cousin Matt, returning for the first time since his grandfather’s death. Grieving is the theme, handled with sensitivity and intelligence. It takes a while to work out how much the family has fallen apart without this (too shadowy) paterfamilias.

“Lives before lives”

There’s a quiet tension and touches of humour that impress. Although the younger characters are better written, Judd handles all oddities calmly; there are plenty of frustrations as the shopping is put away. It’s all well observed, although little happens. The skill comes with revealing how deep the characters’ problems are. The growing sense of complex lives and their history is well played out.

The fulsome roles are made the most of. Lucy Benjamin and Mark Frost play the older characters with gusto. Their daughter on stage is the better role and Hannah Millward shows a flexibility that is to her credit. Sam Baker-Jones adds intrigue to his guileless character of Matt. Matt’s interest in sound recordings and hope that they might reveal voices of the dead doesn’t end up sinister – no small achievement.

Safety is the key. The Gen-Z angst that Judd skilfully details is handled sensitively. It’s interesting to hear Jess’s take on being “edgy”. And how what she and her cousin crave is security. As if to answer his characters, Judd becomes reassuring. Here is an original take on a ghost story, but don’t expect to be spooked. The play doesn’t grip – I’m not sure it is trying to – but could still prove memorable.

Until 3 December 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by The Other Richard

“Cyanide at 5” at the King’s Head Theatre

Tom Stoppard fans might venture out to this clever two-hander to see how the playwright Pavel Kohout influenced his work. But the piece deserves a larger audience, as its excellent script debates art and history – and the interaction between the two – with economy and emotional power.

The scenario is simple – an ‘I’m your biggest fan’ kind of visit to a wealthy novelist. There’s suspense, as it’s clear the intense Irene isn’t simply nervous about meeting an author, while the urbane writer Zofia has something to hide. Peter Kavanagh’s tense direction (aided by some classy lighting) has touches of Hitchcock of Highsmith. What’s not to like already?

The power play between the two women is exciting. These are meaty roles that Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Philippa Heimann clearly relish. I’m not sure Irene needs such a strong accent (she has spent most of her life in the UK), but the delivery is good. And Zofia’s frailty doesn’t quite convince, despite an excellent performance from McLaughlin. But this is solid work on characters that could be defined solely by issues, and both performers make them full of life with a palpable sense of their histories. There are also great twists for both, as Kohout plays with who we feel sorry for, or admire, more.

“A voice to her scream”

So, lots to praise. But neither the craftsmanship nor the production’s strengths form the best part of Cyanide at 5! The real satisfaction comes from an intelligent script with a surprisingly light examination of the role of art, alongside a powerful insight into the history of the Holocaust. Kohout isn’t intimidated by either big topic. Zofia defends her book’s profitability because she gave a voice to a victim – but most of her defence is less lyrical. The big concern is authenticity. Yet we’re asked to think about the publishing industry and celebrity alongside how books affect their readers.

As for the power of art, Zofia’s book – and its questioned status as fiction – comes into dramatic conflict with real life. Irene was a refugee, smuggled out of wartime Poland. Zofia has become rich but has lost a lot. Irene’s dangerous anger is overpowering… is it fair? And how well does Zofia’s justification for her carefully revealed actions work? Kohout’s open-ended conclusion is fitting, given the sophistication of emotions and arguments presented.

Until 26 November 2022

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Tara Kelly

“Mouthful of Fingers” at the Bridge House Theatre 

Post-apocalyptic scenarios are periodically popular in theatre but a genre with plenty of clichés can prove tricky to make your own. Playwright Andrew Mapperley adds elements of horror and fairy tale to his sketch of “lovers at the end of the world” that show originality. The play doesn’t lack ambition and is sure to hold your interest. 

 The world created is unsettling but too confusing. Detail may not interest Mapperley but an audience tends to like some, or at least, trying to work out what catastrophe has happened can be a distraction. The make-up and costumes here don’t help – there is a lot of oddity for its own sake. 

 At a guess, Chekhov is an influence – the family members we meet are all waiting and longing for something. And J.B. Priestley:  there’s a lot about reality and time as well as a kind of Inspector – a spooky role that Caitlin Lee Smith does well with. More importantly, Mapperley uses whatever inspiration to his own ends presenting a distinctive, if unrestrained, set of concerns. 

The language is stilted and elaborate with a biblical feel; none of this is to every taste, a lot of it is clunky, but the mix shows courage. The cast make the dialogue work and give performances to be proud of. Joseph Wood has the very difficult role of the family grandfather which he performs with confidence and conviction. Mapperley, Kat Stidston and Giulia Hallworth play three siblings with plenty of problems; the latter, with her tenuous grip on reality, proves far the most memorable. 

Much of the imagery is powerful and touches on the play’s biggest strength…but also weakness – the sheer amount of neurosis in Mouthful of Fingers. The end of the world and radiation are not these guys biggest problems! There are macabre stories and dreams that would delight an analyst, enough OCD to go around with sexual frustration and hemophobia for good measure. Questions of history and inheritance are also thrown in. Credit for cramming – a lot of the anxiety hits home and the atmosphere is suitably tense – but the play is overloaded. And characters come too close to being defined by their ailments. 

Elisabetha Gruener’s direction is firm and restrained – clearly appreciating the play needs no further histrionics. But it’s still a puzzle. The age and fate of Volvo, a role played tenderly by Rens Tesink, is problematic. Many of the stories started don’t have an ending, a bold idea but one most listeners find frustrating. Riddles can be intriguing – and dramatically effective – but it doesn’t hurt to help an audience out a little.

Until 12 November 2022 

www.thebridgehousetheatre.co.uk 

Photo by Hayley and Kyle Madden

“From Here to Eternity” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This first London revival of the musical by Stuart Brayson and Tim Rice has admirable qualities but unfortunately highlights some of the show’s shortcomings. It’s set on the eve of Pearl Harbour, where the love lives of bored soldiers, more interested in boxing than war, is a little too much like a soap opera. The book, by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, is impressively adult but rushes the action. And the production, directed by Brett Smock, follows suit, splurging on plot and leaving little time for emotion.

The music might not be the most memorable, but Brayson’s songs are good and the score coherent. The new orchestration from Nick J Barstow is bold. And the performances are enjoyable. But the effort to inject energy is too transparent. There’s a lot of soldiers running around and far too much moving the boxes that make up a big part of Stewart J Charlesworth’s design. Scenes feel truncated – snapshots of army life – and are occasionally confusing.

Nervous rather than macho is the atmosphere. The show has something to say about masculinity and war, but gives us little time to think. The roles of Warden and Prewitt are interesting and Adam Rhys-Charles and Jonathon Bentley, who take the roles, sound great, though neither holds attention for long. We are on to another scene too quickly, too often. The build-up to the bombing, clearly designed to provide structure and tension, is overworked and underdelivers.

Jonny-Amies-(Maggio)-Photo-Mark-Senior
Jonny Amies as Maggio photographed by Mark Senior

The cast has plenty of young talent to enjoy and they acquit themselves well. There is a sense of life in the barracks that is tense if not particularly detailed. Jonny Amies as Maggio, “the Joker of the pack”, is smart not to force the show’s attempts at humour and ends up a moving figure. But more experienced performers do shine. Alan Turkington makes the role of the cuckolded Captain work. And Eve Polycarpou, who plays the show’s brothel owner, makes her number (not the strongest) stand out.

The women in the piece – despite being outnumbered – are the highlight. There are strong performances from Carley Stenson and Desmonda Cathabel as the love interests, who inject some much-needed pathos. The songs are sometimes hampered by the lyrics – serviceable yet uninspired – but the delivery is good. The singing gets better and better. But there’s still the problem of just too much going on that feels rushed through or episodic. Storylines have to be resolved even quicker than they were set up. This leaves a poor impression of good show.

Until 17 December 2022

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Evening Conversations” at the Soho Theatre

Writer and performer Sudha Bhuchar’s new piece is like a cosy chat, maybe a work in progress for friends, with an impromptu feel. But the ruminations on Bhuchar’s life and career are structured around her sons and contain a lot of careful thought. Bringing intergenerational views, along with plenty of her own, to the stage makes the show interesting and entertaining.

Bhuchar is one cool mother. She even swears. Her rapport with the audience is fantastic and let’s hope her erudite offspring know how lucky they are. As Bhuchar adopts the voices of ‘The Sons’ (I’m sure the notes she holds capitalise that) she has fun but doesn’t condescend. Ever get a sense of awe around super smart Gen Z’s? Even if we all understand they don’t know everything. Bhuchar strikes the perfect balance between listening and questioning.

The lockdown chats Bhuchar was inspired by are serious. Deep Meaningful Conversations (inevitably abbreviated) that raise and contribute to issues around race, aspiration, and expectation. The show is moving, from her family history of immigration, to tackling current fears including austerity and climate change. And there are surprises – the younger perspectives on identity and politics display plenty of originality.

Along with insight, Evening Conversations is funny. Who rolls their eyes most – the boys or their mum – is a close call. A calm confidence makes the gentle jokes here a pleasure. Bhuchar describes the multiculturalism that is part of her life as “convivial” – a word that could be applied, if not sum up, her show. With “no story and nothing happening” this piece forces us into the moment. An appropriate aim for a yoga practitioner like Bhuchar. And that moment is both wise and charming.

Until 12 November 2022

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Harry Elletson

“Mary” at the Hampstead Theatre

The frequency of dramatisations and the little learning many of us have about Tudor history make a serious new play about Mary Queen of Scots rather difficult. And Rona Munro’s new play is very serious indeed.

The playwright is an expert. Her James Plays cycle, looking at earlier Scottish history, were a thrilling epic when they visited London. As the latest instalment of an exciting ongoing project, Mary stands alone and shows a master at work. But it is notably starker – as reflected in Ashley Martin-Davis’ design and Roxana Silbert’s restrained direction – and a model of economy.

Munro takes only two moments in Mary’s story – her escape from and then imprisonment by her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. The thesis is that the Queen was abducted and raped. Munro highlights how impossible it is to know what really went on. The next bold move is that Mary herself doesn’t speak. The play is more about how she is interpreted – and used. And it’s a sorry tale that generates much sympathy and anger.

The politician James Melville is the focus. We see him powerful and then broken, with the moral dilemma of how those in power handle cases of sexual abuse full of contemporary resonance. This is a complex role given a strong realisation by Douglas Henshall. Melville is smart, cynical and a stranger to modesty. Seeing his regrets and justifications make great drama. For all that, Henshall’s ability to bring out the play’s dry humour impresses most (and shows a further skill that Munro excels at).

Rona Morison in Mary at The Hampstead Theatre
Rona Morison

Melville’s interlocutors are fictional characters called Thompson and Agnes. They illustrate realpolitik and religious conviction respectively but still manage to feel three-dimensional. Their passions don’t make the roles easy to perform (Agnes has a damascene moment that might make you pause), but these are strong performances from Rona Morison and Brian Vernel that take into account how a small contact with power can make a big difference.

The three characters talk and talk. It is remarkable how much excitement Silbert maintains in such a static play. The movement comes with minds changing, with characters persuading. Motives surrounding love and power shift and we are left questioning how sensible or selfish each position and character might be. As for the biggest achievement, time will tell… Munro might have managed to change how we think about Mary herself. The play that takes her name is certainly good enough to do so.

Until 26 November 2022

www.hampseadtheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain” at the Gate Theatre

With magical sheep whose wool makes the rain and a trip to a king’s castle, playwright Sami Ibrahim blends elements of a fairy tale with a story of immigration. The mix is productive and, benefitting from a strong production directed by Yasmin Hafesji, deserves acclaim. Just don’t get too comfortable as you settle down for this yarn.

As the Gate Theatre’s first production in its new Camden home, Hafesji enhances the intimacy of the venue. Inside, the audience is very close to the in-the-round action so a snug sense of settling down to hear a story is cleverly fostered. With several trunks that contain surprise props, Ryan Dawson Laight’s design is great, providing an air of improvisation that adds dynamism.

Samuel-Tracy-credit-Craig-Fuller
Samuel Tracy

But an excellent trio of actors as story tellers is the key to success here. Sara Hazemi takes the role of Elif, an illegal immigrant in a strange land, exploited but retaining dignity and independence. Princess Khumalo is her daughter (at various ages) as well as The Landowner (the least successfully written role) and is especially good at injecting some humour. Samuel Tracy plays, mostly, Elif’s suitor – a character who is, admirably, not simply her seducer. The characters are all brought to life well. The cast excels when it comes to creating the air of a story in progress – the actors bring a sense of urgency to a script that plays with timelessness.


The gravity of the story increases – after all, immigration isn’t a fairy tale. Elif’s attempts to shape narratives (past, present and future) are contradicted by other characters. There’s a sinking feeling around encounters with bureaucracy or attempts at betterment. And there are moments of frustration – including a long fantasia delivered impeccably by Hazemi- that have great energy. It isn’t Ibrahim’s fault that the play becomes predictable. Indeed, it adds weight to his argument. We expect fairy tales to have a happy ending. That this one doesn’t is a bold move.

Until 5 November 2022

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Craig Fuller

“The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes” at the Battersea Arts Centre

Sarah, Scott, and Simon are here to save the world. Or at least have a serious word with it. Travelling from Australia to present a speech, in the guise of a community meeting, this show is smart, important, and impressive.

The trio describe themselves as “intellectually disabled” – or neurodiverse – debate about the term is acknowledged. What they reveal about how they are treated by society begins by highlighting how difficult public speaking is for them. Here is the first move to get a lot of the audience onside.

Surtitles are a sign that it might be difficult to understand what is being said (it’s not really that hard). But the captioning has comedy touches and becomes a character in the play. The show is funny and, for much of the time, wears its issues lightly. The humour is, again, a persuasive move.

Comedy is joined by anger and honesty as we get to know the those on stage. A few jokes, some eye-opening history, and some frank admissions add appeal. The performers – Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price – create a dynamic between their characters that intrigues and enforces individuality.

Plenty of topics are discussed – some too fleetingly. The show has a lot of authors: Mark Deans, Michael Chan, Bruce Gladwin, and Sonia Teuben as well as the cast members. Gladwin also directs and keeps the action focused. But the material here could easily be expanded and sometimes that is frustrating.

The-Shadow-Whose-Prey-The-Hunter-Becomes-by-Back-to-Back-Theatre-credit-Kira-Kynd-inset

Back to that text, the team appreciates it is hard to draw your eye away from a screen. The audience is being aided by artificial intelligence. Here’s where the show is superb. Siri is sinister isn’t she (rather, it)? The technology is used to argue that, one day, everyone might share that disabled label. After all, our neurones all work differently to a computer.

Getting people interested in a cause by bringing it close to them is a neat move in an argument that also adds theatrical tension. I can’t imagine many disagreeing with what they hear – but the piece is enjoyably persuasive. And if theatre can save the world, it might very well be like this show.

Until 22 October 2022 and then on tour in Brighton (26-28 October) and Leeds (2-5 November)

www.bac.org.uk

Photos by Kira Kynd

“Something in the Air” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Peter Gill’s short new play tackles big topics of old age and young love. It’s about the memories that remain with us and not all of them are happy ones. But magic comes despite – or maybe because of – the subject matter. This play is beautiful.

The two main characters, Colin and Alex, live together in a care home. Despite struggling when interacting with others they address the past with startling articulacy. Gill imagines minds that are active despite bodies struggling to communicate (listen out for another example). Examining “the state of memory” this is a depiction of old age that’s dignified. How rare is that? And it leads to strong performances from Ian Gelder and Christopher Godwin in the lead roles.

Claire-Price-in-Something-in-the-Air-at-Jermyn-Street-Theatre-credit-Steve-Gregson
Claire Price

The family that visits Colin and Alex can’t see, or imagine, the real state of their loved ones’ minds. A son and a niece, further fine performances from Andrew Woodall and Claire Price, get on with their lives, unaware that Colin and Alex are doing just the same. The roles provide us with backstory brilliantly. The characters condescend; they see Colin and Alex holding hands as a “small mercy” given the care homes other residents. But the older men aren’t asking for sympathy and are their own harsh critics.

Two younger men join the stage as well. Figures from the past, but not, as you might expect, younger versions of the main characters. These are two past affairs, failed ones at that, brought vividly to life by Sam Thorpe-Spinks and James Schofield. The scenario gives insight into gay life from long ago but doesn’t blame prejudice for everything that happened. The interwoven comments and reflections are romantic but also recriminatory. The delivery is aided by the sure direction of Gill himself alongside the talented Alice Hamilton.

If none of this strikes you as happy stuff…fair enough. Where’s the beauty I mentioned? How about the clarity of thought on offer in a play with two men losing track of so much. Gill doesn’t entertain melancholy or indulgence. Instead, there is detail to transport you into other lives and take you back in time. The descriptions of London of the late 50s and early 60s, with student instigators and hippies, are marvellous.

The precision is incredible, you can see and hear the scenes recounted yet without being overwhelmed by minutiae. And all to build a love story. Not that from the men’s youth but in the here and now. It’s not the kind of romance we usually see (especially between men). But Gelder and Godwin make the affection and support between the Colin and Alex moving and Gill’s play is a beautiful thing.

Until 12 November 2022

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photos by Steve Gregson