“Jitney” at the Old Vic Theatre

August Wilson’s great play gets a good revival under the directorial guidance of Tinuke Craig. Set in the office of a taxi company (the cars give the play its name) the piece is a close look at a community, full of emotion and drama.

The co-op business is headed by the admirable Becker (Wil Johnson) who is struggling to keep the premises open and about to meet his son who has just been released from prison. Old-time drivers struggle with drink (leading to a sensitive performance from Tony Marshall) or their past, while in conflict with a younger generation. Arguments between the gossiping Turnbo and the aptly named Youngblood are a highlight and make strong scenes for Sule Rimi and Solomon Israel. In all cases, Wilson’s characterisation is impeccable.

Unlike the writing, the performances are uneven. Some scenes feel more rehearsed than others. It’s an odd fault but Johnson – who is outstanding – possesses considerably more confidence than his colleagues which leads to uncomfortable moments. Johnson’s is a performance not to be missed as he portrays his character’s dignity and trauma with considered attention and intense passion. The production sags after Becker and Johnson finally leave the stage.

The play’s 1970s Pittsburgh setting is evoked in costume design and video projections (strong work from Alex Lowde and Ravi Deepres). But the period feel doesn’t always come through in performances – accents are hit and miss and the odd declamatory moment jars.

The production works from firm ground though. There’s an excellent balance between humour and darker moments that shows the writing’s sense of rhythm. And some serious thought-provoking antagonism as younger characters – Becker’s son especially – are told to take responsibility for their lives. Wilson draws us into the characters’ complex lives with consummate skill and Craig’s calm understanding of script’s strengths ensure the revival’s overall success.

Until 9 July 2022

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] at the Park Theatre

You might remember our former Prime Minister’s appeal for Cool Britannia pop stars, or that the man himself was once in a band. But a musical about Tony Blair is still a crazy idea. Which is partly the point of this gloriously mad show from Harry Hill and Steve Brown. Tony! must be seen to be believed.

This trip through Blair’s life and career is crammed with jokes, from simply awful puns to references and catchphrases. But note that you need be a specific age to appreciate the show. The interval saw some frantic Googling and puzzled under-40s.

As a history of New Labour as much as one man, Hill and Brown are so keen not to eulogise their subject that they end up a touch fanatical. The show isn’t scared of offending anyone – which a lot of people commend – and some of the jokes are jaw-droppingly tasteless.

Tony is presented as a grinning idiot. Charlie Baker does well in the lead role. Howard Samuels’ Peter Mandelson is predictably Mephistophelean, but drives the action effectively and gets to do a trick with a balloon. Just how much Holly Sumpton’s Cherie gets out of a Liverpudlian twang is a constant surprise. There are so many cameos I lost count, but I won’t forget Madison Swan’s perfect Princess Diana in a hurry. The joke is that the production is rough, ready and self-referential – I’ve never seen so many bad wigs – and the technique is effective if you have a good memory.

Unfortunately, the musical performances are underwhelming. As for the songs themselves, your toe might tap and the mix of pop pastiche is enlivened by ballroom variations that could be made more of with a bigger band. Tony! is more a revue than a musical, which is fine, but some of the singing is just poor.

It’s Hill and Brown who end up the stars. As well as their comedy careers, they produced the underrated I Can’t Sing and their distinctive sense of humour has a great surreal touch. Combining satire with silliness, you can never quite guess what’s coming next. A lot of it is crazy, some of it cheap and nasty, but I did laugh a lot.

It’s a shame the production doesn’t end happily. But then neither does any career in politics. How to handle the war in Iraq is a concern literally voiced by characters. Inspired by music hall, numbers for Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi and George Bush aren’t a bad idea. Director Peter Rowe’s efforts to speed up the pace are wise, but the laughs dry up. It’s a shame, really. There’s plenty of talent and clear intention, but it all goes a bit wrong. Now what does that remind me of?

Until 9 July 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“Cancelling Socrates” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Well done to the wag who decided the sign for the toilets should be in both Greek and English at this première of Howard Brenton’s new piece. The bilingualism is indicative of the show’s playfulness and learning – a combination that makes the evening more fun than you might expect.

If you like philosophy in your plays, telling the story of Socrates’ last days is a sure-fire winner. There’s a lot of debate, all of it interesting, and director Tom Littler treats the arguments with swift efficiency. Clarity is appropriate and essential when bringing so much discussion to the stage, and Littler has done a great job.

Socrates’ engagement with future philosophy (more later on how literal this is) provides strong moments for William Reynolds’ lighting design. But, I confess, I found the show increasingly hard work. You’ll spot references to Descartes and Kant and, I think, Deleuze (but don’t hold me to that).

What impresses more is that the constant questioning is given a camp appeal. That Socrates, depicted expertly by Jonathan Hyde, is such a pleasant, genial figure to watch is balanced by the potential threat he poses – combining sincerity with mischievous. It isn’t hard to see why some felt threatened by his famous, continual probing. “But” is said to be a ”lethal” word – and Socrates says it a lot.

When it comes to the famous death, the play lacks an emotional appeal. Again, you could argue that’s appropriate. There is a fine performance from Robert Mountford, who appears as the jailer after having served as Euthyphro, whose eponymous dialogue forms the first scene. The temptation to find contemporary connections, not surprising given the play’s title, pick up pace but raise smiles rather than convince.

Home vs world

The real highlight in Cancelling Socrates comes with Brenton’s focus on women. The characters of Xanthippe (Socrates wife) and Aspasia (who it is suggested was his mistress) make fine roles for Hannah Morrish and Sophie Ward. Both characters feel freer of cliché and fully rounded despite (yet again) presenting two sides to an argument. The scene of them “quarrelling over how to live” is great drama.

The women’s roles take us to the core of an exploration of mysticism and religion within the play, which is a keen reminder of ritual and magic in Ancient Greek culture. Discussion of Socrates “demon” comes with the voice that drives him to argue – the thing that sees him “testing everything to destruction”. This isn’t just a metaphor, but a stage presence, lending some much-needed theatricality to the show. To cram so much into a short piece, with a mostly light touch, is a magical achievement.

Until 2 July 2022

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Steve Gregson

“Starcrossed” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Aside from the Greeks, can you think of a play that’s inspired as many others as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Rachel Garnet’s 2018 take is to tell the tale from the perspective of Tybalt and Mercutio. And to make the men a new pair of star-crossed lovers.

The idea shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much Shakespeare is played with. But if it sounds a little sensational, think again. Starcrossed is a serious piece – if it has a failing it’s a lack of humour – that shows deep thinking and sensitivity, and a firm grasp on its source material that is super smart.

The development of Shakespeare’s minor characters is a huge success. Yes, Garnet has plenty to work with, but she creates solid, interesting characters that are an exciting prospect for performers.

Mercutio – a “fickle creature” – is a pacifist and an all-round outsider, vividly brought to life by Connor Delves, who has travelled with the show from New York. It’s easy to see Mercutio captivating all he meets with his intelligence and dangerous flair. Tommy Sim’aan takes the role of Tybalt and is just as magnetic to watch. The character’s confusion about his status as well as sexuality are evoked in equal measure and never overstated.

Gethin-Alderman-in-Starcrossed-Photo-Pamela-Raith-Photography
Gethin Alderman

Starcrossed has charm too – which brings us to the final performer, known as The Player, who takes on all the other roles! So, Gethin Alderman becomes Lord Capulet, Paris, Romeo (and Juliet) as well as Tybalt’s father – a great creation whose scenes are a real highlight. Switching so many roles cannot fail to impress, and Alderman adds a playfulness that is welcome.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Garnet’s script is a marvel, a verse play with snatches of Shakespeare (not just from Romeo and Juliet) cleverly incorporated. Stimulating and erudite, this is a text to treasure. It is a credit to the performers and Philip Wilson’s impeccable direction that such learning is worn easily. As with the best Shakespearean productions, we appreciate the wit but don’t feel excluded by it.

Garnet manages to look at the circumstances she creates from the perspective of gay men and pays attention to the history. The couple’s fear and the degree of acceptance they have about keeping their love a secret is moving. There’s a consistent tension in seeing how the script fits into the bigger story, what lines are used or ignored, as well as the exciting speculation about how much change we’ll see.

Best of all, concerns for the future, wrapped up in questions of honour and legacy, are explored with insight and originality. Creating a story “never told” has a powerful impact. Along with Mercutio’s speculation about how lives might be different in 500 years’ time, the idea that so much LGBTQ+ history has been lost is used by Garnet to great effect.

Until 25 June 2022

www.witons.org.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Girl on an Altar” at the Kiln Theatre

For all its emotional power and intellectual sophistication, the triumph of this retelling of Clytemnestra’s story from Marina Carr is its directness. The play is moving and stimulating but, above all, it is marvellously, beautifully, clear. Writing this skilled should not be missed.

In this story of Clytemnestra’s revenge after her husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia, every character is incredibly detailed. Each role narrates the action (like a Greek chorus) as well as soliloquising, addressing the audience, and engaging in blistering argument. Flipping effortlessly between approaches is a credit to every performer and Annabelle Comyn’s flawless direction. And the mix, applied with impeccable naturalism, lulls us towards a breathtaking finale.

It is easy to see Carr’s efforts as a welcome feminist take on the story that brings women to the fore. Eileen Walsh is stunning in the lead role, with a performance that is raw but also calculating. Walsh cannot be praised enough. But there are also strong role for her servant, Cilissa, and Cassandra, played by Kate Stanley Brennan and Nina Bowers respectively, who have their own stories fully realised.

And let’s not underestimate Carr’s achievement, as the role of alpha-male Agamemnon, and the performance from David Walmsley, are just as strong. Can the daughter-killing-tyrant really have any defence? Believe it or not, Carr plays devil’s advocate and puts forward some strong sophistry. You can almost… possibly… feel a little sorry for the hero? In a play obsessed with war, and what war does to men, Agamemnon is trapped by politics, machismo and battle lust – the latter so vividly evoked by bloody and metallic imagery that you can practically taste this play.

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon still love each other – adding further impact to the tragedy. Carr shows how grief can transcend all as Agamemnon says his wife is “moving somewhere beyond men and women”. In a pivotal scene of seduction, Walsh seems to overpower Walmsley physically as much as emotionally. It must be seen to be believed and is a credit to both performers. This is a superb text – daring and original – executed expertly. 

Until 25 June 2022

www.kilntheatre.com

Photo by  Peter Searle

“The House of Shades” at the Almeida Theatre

Beth Steel’s new play is a working-class family history with politics… and ghosts. The story is bold – scenes include a home abortion – but overblown, and the overall effect is powerful, if messy.

The family, whose house we watch through the years, is an unhappy one. The events they live through, personal and political, are depressing. Plays normally provide light relief no matter how much time is spent around the kitchen sink, but humour here is, like the characters, bitter.

Steel is brave to make her lead, Constance, so unsympathetic. But despite an abusive background and frustrations around her limited opportunities, the character is impossible to care for. It’s a full backstory for Anne-Marie Duff, who excels in the role, but might Steel alienate us from Constance too much? With a series of scenes that challenge belief, the character is simply monstrous.

There’s no reason why all the spite and anger in House of Shades shouldn’t make good drama. But Constance causes an imbalance in the play. The other characters are reduced to reacting to her or mouthpieces for political positions. Only Stuart McQuarrie, as the long-suffering husband, manages to hold his own.

As for the politics (a big part of the play), a potted history of the Labour party all the way up to Brexit tensions is just a rehash of old arguments. Agree with them or not, there’s too much shouting (which director Blanche McIntyre should have stomped on) and nothing new to hear.

So, what about those ghosts? It is stated that “Death silences no one, least of all the dead.” which might strike you as just silly… but let’s go with it. Having characters reappear and have a say when they are deceased leads to strong moments. These scenes are the best of McIntyre’s generally fussy direction (at least all the messing around with plates and food stops).

Yet well before we get an appearance from Aneurin Bevan (who would be haunted by him?) it’s clear that a good idea has been used to little effect. Like the presence of a chorus style figure (well performed by Beatie Edney) who makes an appearance in two very different guises, there is little new to the drama or argument. There’s no shock, call to action or addition to the debate – just a long play that ends up saying nothing new.

Until 18 June 2022

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Helen Murray

“Oklahoma!” at the Young Vic Theatre

Setting down some of what happens in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic might help with appreciation of this new production. Remember, the romance between Laurey and her cowboy beau Curly includes an auction for her affections (those lunchboxes are fooling nobody). And Curly’s rival, Jud, is a sinister misfit afforded a vigilante trail upon his death. While many just love Oklahoma! It isn’t hard to see that the show is, as they say nowadays, ‘problematic’.

Whether you share concerns about the plot or not, what directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein do for this revival, which took a Tony in 2019, is fascinating. There’s a brooding air to the action and considerable tension – much of it from Scott Zielinski’s superb lighting design –that’s sure to take any audience by surprise. By highlighting Jud’s mental instability, all the characters become more interesting and the piece more nuanced.

Patrick-Vaill-in-Oklahoma at the Young-Vic
Patrick Vaill

Maybe the production isn’t quite as edgy as it aims to be. John Heginbotham’s choreography is desperate to appear outré. Blackout scenes and live video feeds feel self-conscious and ultimately pointless. But the basic idea of showing problems behind the optimism of the original is great. And the cast – Anoushka Lucas, Arthur Darvill and Patrick Vaill, as Laurey, Curly and Jud respectively – embrace the fuller roles superbly with impassioned performances that highlight strong acting skills.

Adding more sex and a more knowing humour is the production’s forte. There’s real passion between Laurey and Curly, indeed the whole soon-to-be State seems brimming with sexual tension. How these women handle corncobs, let alone the innuendo throughout, is brilliantly done. The second love story, another triangle with Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim is a real joy. Performances from Marisha Wallace, James Davis and Stavros Dimitri come close to stealing the show.

All this and no mention of the music? Here is surely the biggest surprise. A stripped-back score, arranged by Daniel Kluger and supervised by him and Nathan Koci (also credited with additional vocal arrangements), is Oklahoma! as you’ve never heard it before. Injecting a country music feel along with a touch of rock is all a long way from the sweeping romance you might expect. But the music is expertly delivered and appropriate to the project’s exciting freshness as a whole.

Until 25 June 2022

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs” at the Soho Theatre

Iman Qureshi’s queer musical comedy deserves to be a big hit. It’s funny and the songs, performed by the seven-strong titular choir, sound great. Plus, it’s Queer in proud, heart-warming fashion – addressing the concerns of a community with sensitivity and intelligence.

Director Hannah Hauer-King and the cast have a firm grasp on one-liners and wry observations guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. But the play’s strength comes with its diverse group characters – who are lovely to get to know.

The choir is led by Connie, an Owl (Older Wiser Lesbian!), full of eccentric appeal that enables Shuna Snow to make the character a starring role. There are great gags for Dina from Qatar, discovering her sexuality despite her grim husband, and more laughs for the frisky Ellie. In these roles Lara Sawalha and Fanta Barrie excel. There’s burgeoning romance for Fi and Brig (further strong performances from Kiruna Stamell and Mariah Louca). And the choir has new arrivals in a long-standing couple, Ana and Lori, whose squabbles are great fun for Claudia Jolly and Kibong Tanji to perform.

These women are all terrific – a joy to watch and listen to. Inclusion is the name of the game as the group bond and are selected to perform at Pride. Hurrah! And if the play had ended here, I’d have been, simply, very happy.

Up to the interval, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs has a humour and sweetness that reminded me of the current Netflix hit, Heartstopper. The latter is a teen drama, of course, and Qureshi is writing for adults (with an adult wit). But there’s a similar sense of ‘Queer Joy’, a concern for Representation with a capital R and confident, admirable characters not just defined by their sexuality.

Qureshi doesn’t just want to make us laugh. The second half of her play is much more serious. Hauer-King (one half of Damsel Productions) handles this shift expertly, especially with scenes of potential violence, and the cast members further impress with their aptitude for real drama. That investment in the characters pays off as relationships end, therapy is sought out and the adorable Dina’s fate becomes a cause for concern. 

An upset at the Pride event raises the issue of including transwomen in the choir, allowing Louca and Stamell a brilliant scene that deftly lays out this contentious issue. We are shown the importance of language and how essential safe spaces – like the choir itself – are. Qureshi provides so much debate there’s a danger of falling into some of the clichés she has earlier lampooned. But her points are important and well made. Thankfully, a love for the characters created and a palpable sense of community provides an uplifting end.

Until 11 June 2022

www.sohotheatre.com 

Photo by Helen Murray

“The Breach” at the Hampstead Theatre

The striking use of words might be the best way to consider Naomi Wallace’s play. With an autodidact heroine, who reads encyclopaedia, the vocabulary in the play is verbose. Lots of cliché and colloquialism, along with arresting imagery that mixes the obscure and the mundane, make the play poetic and Wallace’s voice unique. The script is erudite but also obtuse and enervating. And a little word overpowers other descriptions – The Breach is odd.

The story the words are telling isn’t without drama. Scenes alternate between four teenagers, including Jude and her brother Acton, in 1977 and 1991. A bizarre, cultish competition to prove the friendship between three boys, which turns Jude into a victim, unfolds with tension and unexpected repercussions. The challenge is for the boys to “top my love” with sacrifices that bind them together. But the results, let alone the motivation, are bizarre.

Sarah Frankcom’s direction is keen to preserve the tone of the piece – respectful and controlled with a restraint that results in a static production. Frankcom is sensitive to Wallace’s tight structure but the play itself is cluttered with ideas and detail. Connections to time and place, politics and economics, feel thrown in and the arguments around consent are poorly developed.

There’s no doubt the scenario is powerful. Without a plot spoiler, Wallace tries to remove physical violence from sexual abuse – to question what difference results. But using exaggeration to bring home the cruelty with which men can treat women is a blunt tool. And Jude’s reactions to what happens to her simply baffle. Even the way Jude and her brother mourn their father (another ill-explored topic) by rolling on the ground and imagining his final moments, are hard to swallow (however stylish).

There are casualties to Wallace’s approach – the performers. While the seven strong cast are professional, their characters are mere mouthpieces for the playwright. It’s only Jasmine Blackborow and Shannon Tarbet, who both play Jude, that manage to inject emotion or even much interest. The male characters simply make you squirm. The Breach isn’t for the fainthearted and has a haunting quality but it is too enigmatic for anybody’s good.

Until 4 June 2022

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Uncle Vanya” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Reconsidering Chekov’s classic play in the light of lockdown sounds interesting. The “idle life” is something most of us experienced during Covid and it can be argued that generational conflicts – a forte for Chekov – have been exacerbated by the epidemic. But don’t be fooled by the sales pitch for Candid Broads’ production. Set in Russia, and in the past, there’s no explication of new ideas. This is a pretty traditional Uncle Vanya. And, unfortunately, it is not a very good one.

To be fair, the production isn’t weighed down by period detail – good. And changes to dialogue are handled well so that speech feels fresh, even if you wouldn’t call changes radical. There’s an emphasis on any self-awareness characters display (plentiful in the text) that is interesting. As an adaptation, this Uncle Vanya shows promise. But Kieran Bourne’s direction and, I’m afraid to say, his cast, let the production down.

Too many of the performances seem a struggle. Much of the acting is too declamatory. The cast circle around the small space for no reason, fumbling with tea cups and shot glasses, in search of something to do with their hands. Differences of emotion are expressed too often simply by changes in volume. There is little sense of continuity with the majority of characters – as if scenes have been rehearsed in isolation without thinking how they fit into the play as a whole. And there’s another big problem – some characters, most notable David Whiting’s Serebryakov, have been abbreviated so much that comprehension is endangered: without previous knowledge of the play you might struggle to work out what is going on.

There are exceptions. Sally Faulkner does her best to anchor the show, injecting some much needed humanity as the family servant Marina. Faye Bennett’s capable performance also stirs emotions as the lovesick Sonya. Along with Jonathan George, who takes the title role, Bennett is the only one who manages Chekhov’s humour. George is very good indeed – technically superior and able to swiftly convey the play’s themes and tensions. We understand Vanya’s struggle quickly and wait for developments that George delivers with confidence. But Uncle Vanya isn’t just about Uncle Vanya! Even George’s achievement comes with the bitter edge of highlighting the production’s faults.

Until 14 May 2022

www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

Photo by Hansof Waller