All posts by Edward Lukes

“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

“House of Ife” at the Bush Theatre

Given its subject matter, Beru Tessema’s debut play is remarkably enjoyable. An estranged family struggling with the death of the titular character through drug addiction sounds grim. But Tessema’s confident comedy skills add well-placed lighter touches. And an exciting ear for dialogue gives this straightforward domestic drama its own originality.

This is a family with secrets, that’s haunted by grief, but the strong bonds between its members are the focus. Establishing a trio of bickering siblings is well done from the start – and great fun. Taking the lead is an adorable younger brother, Yosi, whose performance by Michael Workeye is the standout for the whole show.

Michael Workeye in House of Ife at the Bush Theatre
Michael Workeye

The deceased Ife’s sisters show us different sides of grief, and the performances by Yohanna Ephrem and Karla-Simone Spence make a good contrast. The parents bring yet more insight through their Ethiopian heritage and the father doing “God’s work” (while starting a new family) back in Addis Ababa. There are strong performances again, this time from Jude Akuwudike and Sarah Priddy.

With so much ground to cover – the family history and big issues – it might not be surprising that Tessema addresses topics thinly. Questions of belonging, of culture and of religion from five different perspectives are explored – but not that deeply. Ife’s addiction isn’t examined enough, leading to this pivotal offstage figure feeling sketchy.

Instead the show’s strengths come from comic observations and the tension between generations. Director Lynette Linton’s close work, with the steady flow of conversations between the parents, the children, and the whole family, are always engrossing. The pacing is excellent, with loud arguments and quiet reflection nicely balanced. An explosive final scene provides a worthy payoff for all the care and attention taken.

Until 11 June 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Bonnie & Clyde The Musical” at the Arts Theatre

Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s score for this 2011 musical sounds exemplary. With consistently strong songs and smart lyrics, this is a show that can hold its head high. While not all the numbers feel as if they belong in a story about criminals – and the sense of time and place for these depression era degenerates isn’t convincing – there is barely a weak number to be heard.

The entire cast enjoys this solid material. The production has fine leads, with Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage taking the title roles. Given the stronger written part, Gage’s acting impresses. Director Nick Winston’s production is a quality affair. Although small, the venue feels appropriate for the show and the design from Philip Witcomb is neat, if far from lavish.

Natalie-McQueen-and-George-Maguire-in-Bonnie-and-Clyde-Photo-Richard-Davenport
Natalie McQueen and George Maguire

Problems arise with Ivan Menchell’s book and the characterisations here. Time spent on Bonnie and Clyde, looking at their motivations and insecurities, is rewarding. But secondary roles – Clyde’s brother and his wife, as well as a law man who holds a torch for Bonnie – are poor. The performers – George Maguire, Natalie McQueen and Cleve September – sound good, but the roles are written either too comic or too sincere. These issues are worse when it comes to the crime couple’s parents.

Such poor parts are an especial shame, since focusing on how others feel and are affected by Bonnie and Clyde is the show’s smart move. Taking criminals as your protagonists in any drama must be handled sensitively. This show generally avoids the danger, as aspirations for fame seem silly and both fall into violence in a convincingly chaotic fashion. If there’s a little too much sympathy for the gangsters, the show never leaves us in any doubt about how destructive they are. And it really does sound great along the way.

Until 10 July 2022

www.bonnieandclydemusical.com

Photos by Richard Davenport

“Straight Line Crazy” at the Bridge Theatre

You might not think town planning is the most interesting subject for a play, but David Hare makes the most of it. Tackling the career of Robert Moses, ‘the man who built New York’, Hare elaborates themes of the state versus the individual, as well as the nature of aspiration and ambition, in this tale of parks, recreation and roads.

The history is interesting – honestly – but the key to Straight Line Crazy is character. Hare’s biography of Moses is what makes his play. And it provides a stellar role as the starchitect Moses for Ralph Fiennes.

On the side of the angels

Fiennes has the charisma to depict the maverick Moses, making him suitably magnetic as well as complex. That this is a man with a mission is an understatement. The drive to constantly build kept Moses in motion for 30 years. But his desire to improve the lot of many, by giving them access to fresh air and the countryside, is more complicated than it seems.

Using the methods of the devil

Moses stopped at little to get what he wanted. Fiennes conveys the astounding arrogance of the man convincingly. A viciousness that disregards how anybody else feels is enforced relentlessly, and the performance is suitably powerful. But, too often, Hare treats imperiousness as a joke. And the punchlines are poor.

The show is hampered by some unstable accents (even Fiennes’) and too many characters are simply shadowed by the central role. Moses’ assistants (played by Samuel Barnett and Siobhán Cullen) are an effort to correct this fault but aren’t well-rounded characters.  Even Danny Webb’s crowd-pleasing Governor is only an amusing foil.

Ralph Fiennes and Danny Webb

There are more problems I’m afraid, which even Nicholas Hytner’s confident direction cannot hide. After the interval we only see more of the same. Yes, Moses faces objections to his plan of driving a road through Washington Square Park. But getting so much building done was never going to be easy. An obsession with cars starts to be questioned. And Hare highlights that the plans’ new opponents are middle class – claiming they are more organised and powerful than the big business names Moses took on earlier in his career.

The conflict is, dramatically, a repetition. We’ve seen the arrogance and determination already. Attempts to highlight the personal toll Moses’ work took arrive too late. Like the traffic on the roads Moses was obsessed with constructing, Straight Line Crazy just doesn’t go anywhere.

Until 18 June 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Straw Chair” at the Finborough Theatre

There’s a lot going on in Sue Glover’s historical drama. The true history of an imprisoned noblewoman is told alongside the story of a newly married missionary and his young wife. Meanwhile the setting, a remote island steeped in paganism, elaborates on themes of religion and power. If the script is disjointed – an odd mix of romance and intrigue – The Straw Chair is always interesting.

First the location (the jail of Lady Rachel Grange as well as the parish needing a priest), the Hebridean island of St Kilda, is a character it its own right. Embodied by the only local we meet, Oona, played with great charm by Jenny Lee, there is a lot of anthropological detail. Might the role have a touch more drama? Should we be suspicious of Oona’s role as jailer? Nonetheless, her love of the island is evocative.

To hell, to Hades, to Kilda

For Lady Rachel, kidnapped and carted off to a house with only one chair, it is understandable and amusing that she hates St Kilda. In a commanding performance, Siobhan Redmond makes this great character fascinating as she plays with degrees of madness. She isn’t a figure of sympathy – her snobbery ensures that – but, as a mix of Mrs Rochester and Lady Macbeth, Redmond ensures the character has the required magnetism. It is to the credit of all, not least director Polly Creed, that the role doesn’t swamp the play.

Finlay-Bain-and-Rori-Hawthorn-in-The-Straw-Chair.-Photo-credit-Carla-Joy-Evans
Finlay Bain and Rori Hawthorn

Lady Rachel’s relationship with the newly wed Isabel could be elaborated on. It’s another strong performance – from Rori Hawthorn – but I wonder if the young woman is too naïve – and her growing affection for the island a little pat? The character is fuller when it comes to her relationship with her husband, the missionary Aneas, a role that benefits from a final strong performance, this time from Finlay Bain. The “rigid piety” of the aspiring churchman is offset by a convincing sense of religiosity and a nervousness around his young wife that Bain depicts expertly.

The play’s conclusion is wilfully frustrating. We don’t know what will happen to Lady Rachel or the couple whose marriage is tumultuous – little bodes well despite Bain and Hawthorn’s chemistry. And the minister’s conversion to Lady Rachel’s cause is so quick that it seems clumsy. This trip to this island feels rushed, but it is still a journey worth making.

Until 14 May 2022

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Carla Joy Evans

“The Sh*t” at the Bush Theatre

Kenny Emson’s play tells the story of a youth worker, Eric, and his client, Daniel. The script is detailed and tidy, qualities reflected in Alexander Ferris’ admirable direction. The performances are excellent.

Eric and Daniel meet often (I’m not quite sure your average troubled youth gets this much quality attention) and the drama of their developing and turbulent relationship is effective, if predictable.

Eric’s troubled past is expected, too. And doesn’t quite explain his connection with the younger man. But Lladel Bryant’s performance in the role is exceptional – the growing care and exasperation he feels with Daniel is believable and moving.

The writing for Emson’s younger character is better. Daniel provokes and challenges not just his youth worker but the audience. Dillon Scott-Lewis brings out the intelligence and humour of the role and allows Daniel to be vulnerable as well as angry.

It is a little too easy to see The Sh*t as a two-hander that aches to be expanded. Eric’s boss is a voiceover performed by Samantha Béart and, while Bryant does his best, these scenes are poor. Maybe the idea was that having an offstage manager would provide a Big Brother scenario – but both the role and the arguments need to be stronger.

Eric’s despair and rage against the system – and its scorecard assessments of people – may be naïve, but it is powerful. The recurring question of how Daniel rates with “managing feelings” – a score that Eric doesn’t reveal – is worth considering with regards to all three characters. The scope to develop and focus on this theme is clear.

Until 23 April 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Ant Robling

“I Know I Know I Know” at the Southwark Playhouse

Confidently written and well performed, Flora Wilson Brown’s new play is an intelligent and sensitive examination of sexual abuse. This ambitious work is worth checking out, despite not being an easy play for two reasons.

First, the subject matter is tough. We hear the story of a young woman who was groomed by a pop star, only later revealing the truth now that he is famous. Meanwhile, the musician is travelling to a wedding with an old friend, so the audience sees him in a very different light. It’s a neat way of challenging preconceptions, further aided by surprising humour on Wilson Brown’s part.

With both extended scenes delivered at the same time, I Know I Know I Know is dense viewing that makes demands on the audience. But the results are worth it. The dialogue overlaps in a marvellous fashion. Aided by Harry Tennison’s direction, there are explosive connections from the simplest words. As the moods of the three characters in the piece change, the script has a tense, flowing energy.

I Know I Know I Know isn’t perfect. Victoria Maytom’s set is an unhappy affair that doesn’t help the audience work out what’s going on and seems like an obstacle course for the performers. Anna Short’s sound design is effective but lacks the subtlety of the script. The lighting, from Ryan Day, is more appropriate – drawing the audience in and out of the action with an ebb and flow that fits the piece.

I know I know I know credit Ellie Kurttz
Ethan Moorhouse and Martha Watson Allpress

Wilson Brown’s well-written roles produce great performances. Well done to Martha Watson Allpress and Ethan Moorhouse, who play friends from university whose lives have become very different. They both have their problems. Watson Allpress brings a febrile energy to her role, while Moorhouse reveals his rock star character’s demons gradually. The key is that both are likeable – she has a wit to warm to, and he brings charm appropriate to the character’s success.

It is the victim, Alice, who is the focus of the show, and this proves a triumph for Wilson Brown and performer Hannah Khalique-Brown. There’s a lot of detail about Alice’s trauma; how the affair started and developed as well as how it has affected her. But this is written and delivered with a balanced approach that avoids sensationalism. Alice is a character whose honesty we never doubt (it must have been tempting to introduce scepticism for the sake of drama?). That Alice is still in love with the man who had been so terrible to her is haunting.

Wilson Brown has to skim around some of the interesting points that make her characters well rounded. And the play’s resolution, while emotional, feels truncated. But the piece is weighty and easily intense enough to impress. The age gap between the characters isn’t as great as they themselves seem to think, and that we aren’t dealing with some seedy Saville type is an important point. The play succeeds in bringing fresh insight to an important topic.

Until 16 April 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

“Sad” at the Omnibus Theatre

There are solid performances and Marie McCarthy’s careful direction to enjoy at Victoria Willing’s new play. Unfortunately, the script is not a success. Aimless and indulgent, its baby-boomer characters become a bore.

It’s brave of Willing to make her heroine Gloria (who suffers from seasonal affective disorder) unsympathetic. It’s a big part for Debra Baker, who is faultless. But it’s hard to make someone moaning for 90 minutes interesting.

Even worse, there’s little insight into Gloria’s problems. She is grieving for her mother and dissatisfied that her life hasn’t turned out as planned. There’s a mass of detail that is messy and it is too confusing for us to feel sorry for her.

The play becomes distracted with subplots about Gloria’s affair, her best mate from Slovakia and… the housing crisis. These provide difficult roles for her husband and friend, who Kevin N Golding and Izabella Urbanowicz tackle with skill. Desperate efforts to provide back stories that add depth to both roles fail and intrude further on the main story. And there’s a dire role as the next-door neighbour for Lucas Hare, who tackles some terrible dialogue bravely. 

Debra-Baker-in-Sad-at-the-Omnibus-Theatre-Clapham
Debra Baker

Some of the scenes might work as stand-alone sketches but, joined together, Sad amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Is there a lust for something random I’m missing here? There are plenty of coincidences in the piece. Gloria is supposed to captivate (and, goodness, Baker tries) as a former punk and free spirit. Lucid dreams and mentions of storytelling intrigue – she’s even writing a memoir, albeit one even she knows isn’t very interesting. It’s a shame some of this isn’t elaborated on. If some kind of crazy is the aim, Willing needs more originality.

Worst of all, the play is flagged as a comedy. And it took me far too long to work out why. A handful of lame one-liners and deadpan remarks indicate the intention to be funny. This seems to be the only excuse for Hare’s character (or that someone in local government really pissed off Willing). This creepy, clichéd council official is odd rather than comical. I’ve seldom seen a more humourless play, despite the efforts of those on stage.

Until 30 April 2022

www.omnibus-clapham.org

Photo by Dan Tsantilis