“She Stoops to Conquer” at the Orange Tree Theatre

Moving Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy to the 1930s proves a neat idea in director Tom Littler’s new production. Add a cracking cast and some seasonal touches and the show, which would be perfect any time of year, makes a very happy Christmas theatre trip.

This comedy of manners and mistaken identity is well known, but Littler makes it blissfully light. The wit is verbose, surely tongue-tying for performers, but the delivery here is always clear. Dashes of Wodehouse help – the division of town and country and a clash of classes become spiffing fun. And Littler is very much at home working in the round, making sure the action zips along among Anett Black and Neil Irish’s stylish design.

This is an ensemble that looks as if it’s having a great time and every role comes into its own. First up are Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, the country gentry, played by David Horovitch and Greta Scacchi. Horovitch gets a laugh out of nearly every line as the “grumbletonian” patriarch. Scacchi keeps up, despite a less forgiving role – anyone else feel sorry for this doting mum who doesn’t get her trip to London? As her prodigal offspring, Guy Hughes is the convivial heart of the play. He’s great with crowds and the Orange Tree’s community performers who have a lovely pub scene – well done them.

Guy Hughes and theCommunity Company

Celebrations continue with the play’s pairs of lovers. Sabrina Bartlett and Robert Mountford are at home as super-toffs plotting to elope, their roles serving as fitting mirrors to our stars, Tanya Reynolds and Freddie Fox. As the leads, the comedy from this pair is perfection. Reynolds is a great flapper. And so is Fox – the perfect “silly puppy” – especially when his “list of blunders” is slowly revealed.

Among the giggles there is sincerity, too. Reynolds shows us the dutiful daughter Goldsmith wrote, as well as the modern woman we want. When she claps her hands at a scheme, you want to join in. But when she starts to fall in love, it’s sweet. And who doesn’t like a rom-com at Christmas?

Until 13 January 2024


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen” at the Bush Theatre

It makes sense that Marcelo Dos Santos’ monologue was a success at the Edinburgh Festival. The Comedian character we spend an hour with has a lot to say about humour and his delivery is impeccable. It’s clear Samuel Barnett, who takes the role, could have a second career in stand up. And the play is very funny.

Dos Santos provides insight as well as laughs, even if not all his ideas are new. The tears of a clown cliché, the need for an audience – we know all this – but less so the cold calculating skill of the comedian’s craft being compared to the work of a butcher. Along with stops and starts to what may or may not be the routine, there’s enough to make you pause, question and think.

The play is a love story, too, as an affair with an American, whose name is never revealed, develops. Again, discussion of dating apps and cultural differences is standard stuff, although well written. The offstage character is vivid and the romance endearing. And there’s a great twist when it comes to “what’s wrong” with this new love that provides a surprising and neat conclusion.

It’s all tightly written, and Matthew Xia’s direction helps enormously. If there are reservations, you might question how well Dos Santos handles his “unreliable first-person narrator”. The Comedian, with his hook-ups and drug use, might be too obviously troubled to create much tension? Too frequently his passive aggression is, well, just aggressive.

Still, it is a bold move to stretch our sympathy, and Barnett really comes into his own here. The “professional neurotic” he plays often grates, but he earns our attention even when he’s being contemptuous. And you feel for him even though he is silly. After all, isn’t being morbid and self-obsessed contradictory? (If you think life is pointless, why does yours matter so much?)

If the show aims at edgy, it doesn’t quite get there, but all involved do a great job. The script is efficient, Xia sensitive and Barnett fantastic. Even the microphone is used to great effect – as a weapon and a shield. How Barnett manages his single prop neatly parallels the show’s underlying anger and vulnerability.

Until 23 December 2023


Photo by The Other Richard

“Brenda’s Got a Baby” at the New Diorama Theatre

Jessica Hagan’s new play is easy to enjoy, being a bright comedy focusing on Ama and her wish to have a baby before she is 30. Providing insight and sharp dialogue, all aided by strong performances and appreciative direction from Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, it’s a show to sit back and enjoy.

Ama’s goal to become a mother gets harder as the play goes on. Her sister, Jade, and her mother have opinions…and aren’t scared to share them. These are strong characters, talking sense, if not always at sensitive moments, and make great roles for Jahmila Heath and Michelle Asante, who are both fantastic crowdpleasers. Meanwhile, Jordan Duvigneau does well as the dastardly boyfriend, while Edward Kagutuzi makes as endearing partner for Jade.

Ama is our star, though, and Anita-Joy Uwajeh, who takes this big role, is superb. Her initial contempt for the titular off-stage character, a girl who got pregnant at school, doesn’t endear Ama to us. And it gets worse! As well as being a snob, Ama manipulates and uses the therapy she has had as a tool against others, as she “lies and schemes” with increasing desperation, which becomes more and more fun to watch.  

The question of how much of a success Ama is adds some weight to the play. Many would be jealous of a career woman with a good job who buys her own flat (at 28… in London!). But although Ama has done everything “by the book”, she is judged as a failure because she has no children. Uwajeh handles her character’s frustration, anger and sadness with a light touch that is perfectly pitched.

Hagan wants to up the stakes, and the play gets darker. Important facts about medicine are introduced and Ama becomes ill – “spiralling” – through her desperation for a child. As she gets crazier, so does the action… well, a little. A couple of twists aren’t that much of a shock and the play doesn’t quite know how to bring things to a close. But it’s all still funny and the performances consistently strong. You might miss surprises in this show, but its appeal comes from recognising the characters and the dilemmas. It’s comforting rather than confrontational and, since that is surely the aim, Brenda’s Got a Baby is a job well done.

Until 3 December 2023


Photo by Cesare De Giglio

“The Merchant of Venice 1936” at Wilton’s Music Hall

This touring production, in association with the RSC, the Watford Palace Theatre and Home Manchester, has already received deserved acclaim. But since director Brigid Larmour has relocated the action to a specific year in the East End of London, seeing the show in Grace’s Alley is extra special. Video work from Greta Zabulyte showing the battle of Cable Street (just around the corner) is chilling. At the end, an ovation is built into the production as we are invited to stand against fascism just as East Enders did 87 years ago.

Given current tragic events, it is sad rather than surprising that the show has extra power. Nonetheless, this abridgement of Shakespeare is excellent. Although less than two hours I didn’t miss much. You might say some romance has gone – or, rather, that nonsense with riddles and caskets is handled swiftly – and the role of Shylock’s daughter Jessica does suffer. But the focus on antisemitism here is clear and bold. The extent to which the establishment that money-lending Shylock is pitted against encourages hostility is a focus – hatred of the Jew is literally institutional. Casual prejudice is highlighted and often painful to watch.

The big twist is to see Shylock’s intended victim Antonio, often viewed as heroic , as an Oswald Mosley figure and it is jaw dropping. It is a marvel that a simple black shirt can change the play so much. Raymond Coulthard, who takes the role, makes a great villain. But all the characters become tainted by hate, including Hannah Morrish’s excellent Portia, who we want to like, but whose contempt of Shylock is disturbing. Also of note are Xavier Starr and Jessica Dennis, who play two relatively small roles that they make powerful, showing a mix of ignorance, spite and violence.

Of course, the star is Shylock, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman. A strong accent, impeccably delivered, emphasises her outsider status. While there is defiance, there is also a depressing resignation about the prejudice suffered. Larmour and Oberman are too smart to make Shylock a sympathetic figure. But we come closer to understanding the rage the character carries around – and how the chance at revenge is so quickly taken. A speech after the applause might explain why this performance is so brilliant – Cable Street is close to Oberman’s heart. At the risk of making a cold observation about such an impassioned performance, Oberman reminds us how live – as well as raw – theatre can be.

Until 11 November 2023 and then on tour until 10 February 2024


Photo by Marc Brenner

“On Railton Road” at the Museum of the Home

While a connection between a play about gay squatters in 1970s Brixton and this location is a nice idea, as a venue for a play it is tough. The strip lighting and terrible acoustics in the room set aside for performing make watching and hearing a real effort. Director Ian Giles doesn’t help. His enthusiastic cast shouts too much, yet it is often hard to catch what’s being said.

It seems a shame not to recommend a play because of where it is staged. But that isn’t the only disappointment here. There are interesting and important ideas in On Railton Road – about housing and a gay lifestyle or identity removed from heteronormativity – that could pose an invigorating challenge. It’s radical stuff that’s worth hearing. But, regardless of your politics, Louis Rembges’ play feels too much like a lecture.

Maybe to add some fun, or to structure the play, a lot of time is taken up with a theatre group formed by some of the squatters – the Brixton Faeries. We get to see snatches of their Punch and Judy Show, or rather its rehearsal. While it’s nice to remind the kids that reclaiming a narrative isn’t new, street theatre off the street is asking for trouble and, despite puppets from Oliver James Hymans, the performances are uneven and these sections too long.

To be fair, there is personal drama that aims to put flesh on the bones of theory with a cast of characters that, even if they don’t quite convince, entertain. Jamal Franklin’s Darie stands out by far as the most charismatic, well-delivered role. But all the characters need developing, some of them urgently. Casper (played with conviction by Hannah van der Westhuysen), who toys with terrorism, is the most obvious example. Or take Marie (Aoife Smith) who, confusingly, ends up taking over the narration after being in the background. Each role is identified with a quirk athat becomes inescapable. I wonder if casting more diverse ages might have helped? 

There are problems with plotting, too. There’s an endearing performance from Manish Gandhi, but his character’s story is a mystery. Meanwhile Thomas Royal’s Philip seems included because of his job as a teacher and, from this little explored plot point, ends up as a victim of violence that is subsequently (almost) forgotten about. As for the squatters’ future lives, there seems to be an obligation to document these that is horribly rushed.

If the play is just history – telling us about what happened – we don’t quite get enough context or depth. True, their lives become “fragmented”, but characters we don’t get to know well end up with truncated stories that do nobody justice. If the show wants to do more… then it fails again. Telling us what happened to the properties is also rushed to the point of being confusing. Could Railton Road be some kind of model – for housing, or for how to live? I’m not sure, and nor is the play that really should have told us.

Until 18 November 2023


Photo by Lara Dunn

“Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” at the Coach and Horses

As sites for shows go this one is a scoop. Seeing Keith Waterhouse’s play about journalist Jeffrey Bernard in the pub he frequented adds immeasurably to this fine production, directed and adapted by James Hillier. Soho is almost a character in the play – after Bernard moved there, he said he “never looked forward” – and joining him for a lock-in at such a historic location is a thrill.

Of course, a pub isn’t the perfect performance space. Hillier and his company, Defibrillator, have experience that proves essential. Robert Bathurst takes the role and holds court– talk about art imitating life – basking in the attention and the atmosphere. The odd drunk outside could almost have been planned, it fits the night so well.

The feeling is intimate, which suits the piece’s elegiac tone. Afterall, the “unwell” of the title is an understatement, and these reminiscences focus on mortality. Bernard’s addictions to alcohol and gambling took their toll, and his self-awareness is admirable, but also sad. The production is careful not to glamourise. Bathurst’s performance, almost nervous at first, reflects his character’s disappointments and brave face.  

None of which is to say that the Bernard depicted here is a maudlin drunk or as unpleasant as his stories suggest. Despite all the vodka downed, his spirit is unreformed – this show is fun. The jokes are well-written, a trick is brilliantly executed, and Bathurst’s delivery is impeccable. The characters we hear about lead to wicked impersonations. But, above all, it’s the jokes that Bernard makes at his own expense that saves him in our eyes. He may have been a bad gambler, but it’s an easy tip to recommend this show. Odds on, you’ll love it.

Monday–Wednesday until 20 November 2023


Photo by Tom Howard

“The Flea” at the Yard Theatre

The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 concerned a male brothel in Fitzrovia, and the characters in this play either worked or visited there or investigated it. But, playwright James Fritz aims for a very different kind of historical drama and is open about not always following facts. Both its look, and bold direction from Jay Miller, provide originality for the production. Yet just as good, beneath the style, there’s fine storytelling and an intelligent engagement with history.

In this tale about the exploitation and persecution of gay men, the smartest move is to focus it on a woman – the mother of one of the boys who prostituted themselves. Doing an excellent job, Norah Lopez Holden plays Emily Swinscow, serving as our narrator and reminding us that this is an unpleasant story about desperate people forced into sex work. A lot about the production is cool, but this mother’s care for her son provides warm emotion.

The five-strong cast all take on more than one role and much of the casting stimulates through its sharp eye on class distinctions. To take the most obvious example, Lopez Holden also makes an appearance as Queen Victoria, showing how the scandal reached the highest levels of society. But note, Victoria shares Swinscow’s concerns for family. The monarch tries to make a deal with God to protect her grandson, even though it is the wrong thing to do.

Yes, God… they makes an appearance in the play, too. And let’s just say that Victoria gets very excited about the chat. Scott Karim does a divine job in the role, and it isn’t The Flea’s only crazy moment. Showing great skill, Connor Finch, Séamus McLean Ross and Sonny Poon Tip all join in the fast-paced, often comic, action. Miller makes sure it’s always clear what is going on. And there’s also considerable sympathy for all involved.

Sonny Poon Tip and Séamus McLean Ross

It’s going too far to say that Fritz shows sentimentality, but he has an eye on this most Victorian of traits. Finch makes a superb stage debut, movingly depicting two very different figures, while Poon Tip’s turn as one of the aristocrats drawn into trouble proves powerful. The play is harsh to those in charge and their agendas. Again, Karim excels as police Inspector Abberline, while McLean Ross’s nightmarish Prince of Wales is a marvel. But The Flea doesn’t blame. Highlighting compromises, some horrid, that characters make because of historical circumstances is a mature response to the period.

Séamus McLean Ross and Connor Finch

To save the best until last, it’s a pleasure to highlight a costume designer – Lambdog1066. What performers wear often only comes into focus if something is incongruous. Here, it’s all wrong! And brilliant as a result. The invention is fantastic (and so is the construction of the clothes themselves). The designs bear in mind the different roles to be played, with ruched sleeves joined to uniforms, or bolero and biker jackets looking both scruffy and smart. All sorts of materials are used – rags, carpets, even pottery. They do look crazed, but they help to tell the story. This aesthetic aids the aims of the play brilliantly and shares its intelligent originality.

Until 2 December 2023


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Influence” at Collective Theatre

Waiting for this new play from Stockroom to start is more interesting than usual – the audience are invited to pop their secrets on a postcard. It’s clear the revelations are going to play some part in what comes next – a performance that seems like a magic show that everyone gets involved with.

The framework is a magician telling the story of his family, a grandfather who trod the musical hall boards and a Harry Potter-loving nephew who died tragically young. Of course, the stakes are raised – there’s going to be a dangerous stunt never performed before! And more audience participation than I’ve ever seen – nearly half the crowd end up doing something or other.

Put together, the storytelling and magic make a great showcase for Kit Young. Along with ‘dad jokes’ and generally strong comedy skills, Young balances a convivial air with sinister touches. As for the tricks, many deliberately old fashioned, even hammy, they are perfectly delivered and very entertaining. Consultant Scott Penrose deserves a lot of credit for the work here, but Young really is magic, a natural showman with plenty of charisma.

Young is playing a part too, of course…when it comes to sleights of hand – you might forget this is a play with clever writers behind it: Georgia Crowther, Chris York and Maheni Arthur worked together as part of Stockroom’s writers room. References to Chekhov intrigue, while bringing out a parallel between the conjurer’s art and contemporary social media is interesting, if a touch strained. What really impresses is how details shape our perception – the odd fact is mixed in with a lot of misdirection. It’s great to try and spot, and fun when you fail to.

Under director James Hillier’s careful hand, the finale is terrific. Far too good to spoil – even if that means some credit can’t be given where it’s due. Not one but two twists arrive… and quickly! Set up by this talented team, our expectations, especially regarding all that participation, are used against us and we see how much influence they have had: the play makes its point and is a lot of fun along the way.

Until 2 December 2023


Photo by Hanna Kovacs

“Clyde’s” at the Donmar Warehouse

Hope is the takeaway from playwright Lynn Nottage’s diner-based drama. The ex-convicts who are employed by the owner of the restaurant that takes her name know they’ve made mistakes and won’t find work elsewhere. But they still have aspirations – to make the perfect sandwich. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but Nottage and this five-star production make it a fulfilling menu.

Nottage often writes about the world of work – about trades unions in Sweat or the rag trade in Intimate Apparel. But while the setting is America, evoked with great skill, the concerns she raises are global: expectations, exploitation and the gig economy. A sense of pride in work is made palpable. To show the importance of the cuisine, the lighting and movement are invaluable, with credit to Oliver Fenwick and Kane Husbands respectively. It’s important we take these sandwiches seriously!

To really make sure we care, it’s Nottage’s larger than life but credible characters that power her drama so effectively. You root for each in a variety of ways. Director Lynette Linton and her cast present a surprising collection of heroes to perfection.

The lead role, of sorts, is Clyde, a monstrous creation performed by Gbemisola Ikumelo, who is mesmerising. Despite being the boss from hell, Clyde’s difficult life and her problems make her intriguing as well as repulsive. She’s filled with hate – the question is why. Her counterpart is the Buddha-like Montrellous portrayed by Giles Terera with suitable mystery and charisma. For all the calm, it turns out his backstory is just as dramatic.

Montrellous inspires his three fellow chefs, acting as a mentor. And he can teach us all a thing or two. These younger characters adore him in heartwarming fashion while, of course, having their own problems. The dynamics between them prove engrossing. A potential love affair between characters exquisitely portrayed by Sebastian Orozco and Ronkẹ Adékọluẹ́jọ́ adds romance, while an unrecognisable Patrick Gibson has a stunning role as former gang member Jason.

There is nothing laboured about Nottage’s dialogue or, indeed, its delivery. While the problems faced are heavy, the humour is light – Clyde’s is a very funny play. Many playwrights can show their wit and create characters a little too amusing to believe. But the humour here feels effortless and flows naturally. Chef’s kisses for this great work.

Until 2 December 2023


“Boy Parts” at the Soho Theatre

Gillian Greer’s adaptation of Eliza Clark’s novel has a lot to offer – above all a fantastic solo performance from Aimée Kelly. Tension is crammed into the story of a disturbed art photographer, who may be or may not be a serial killer. Not a moment of its 80 minutes is dull. I’m just not sure Boy Parts as challenging as it should be.

Kelly makes our antiheroine Irina hold attention with an acerbic tongue and plenty of extreme views. There’s no doubt about her contempt for people, and her lust for the young men she shoots is uncomfortable to watch. Kelly handles the script’s dark humour with considerable control – and then the next moment gives you goosebumps.

Yet, do Irina’s mental health problems make the play too easy? We are never sure if the dark fantasies are really enacted. Or what role self-medication in the form of drink and alcohol plays. An unreliable narrator can be a great device but, in a one-person show, other perspectives are especially tricky. Maybe the ideas are disturbing enough. But is there the danger we dismiss Irina?

The twist of having a female photographer exploiting men is an interesting one, especially the question about the very possibility of her being a threat. The chills are here, the language visceral. But there’s a snag again. We might wonder how much the work is being shaped by a curator Irina wants to please – and, of course, this gallery owner is a man. And many ideas feel rushed. That Irene dismisses her personal security, her self-esteem, even being abused, all shock – how could they not? – but each needs expanding on.

The production itself is strong. Sara Joyce’s direction is firm, and the show looks great. Peter Butler’s set recalls an exhibition space and benefits the video work from Hayley Egan. The whole show is aided by Christopher Nairne’s cinematic lighting design. But, with all this, we’re moving into the territory of style over substance. Boy Parts is crammed and yet feels fleeting. The show has great moments but doesn’t add up to much.

Until 25 November 2023


Photo by Joe Twigg