All posts by Edward Lukes

“Monster” at the Park Theatre

Abigail Hood’s disturbing play works hard at being hard hitting. Tackling so much trauma – including the death of a child – ensures the drama is powerful. And the show is well performed, despite the bumpy script. But be prepared, the show is not for the faint hearted.

Kayleigh and Caitlin (Hood and Zoe Douglas) are schoolgirl lovers, and their affair is well depicted. Although they are both old for their age, with difficult backgrounds, Hood manages to remind us that they are still children. The girls are endearing and the humour is strong. But laughs stop quickly, and the play explodes in an exaggerated fashion.

An episodic structure, handled at a breakneck pace by director and dramaturg Kevin Tomlinson, feels horribly rushed. There’s little wrong with any of the scenes but all are so short that none quite satisfies. Secondary characters suffer. Although well performed by Gillian Kirkpatrick and Emma Keele, Kayleigh’s mother and a well-meaning schoolteacher do not convince. The former is a religious maniac/prostitute and the latter another victim of abuse seeking to “save” the young girl. Grim is fine, but sketchy proves frustrating.

Kevin Wathen

There is a welcome change of pace after the interval. A calmer approach brings more depth. Set after Kayleigh’s release from prison, the aftermath of her crime is examined in more detail.  The scenario is contrived and the dialogue clunky, even clichéd. But observing how events have changed all the characters leads to good performances (and, since he hasn’t been mentioned yet, Kevin Wathen has a superb scene).

Might there be a too much sympathy for the monster of the title? Kayleigh is a fascinating character, from a smart girl with “no filter” to a woman genuinely haunted by what she has done. Hood conveys all this superbly, with a depiction so determined to be empathetic that it becomes bold and raises interesting questions. Despite problems in the script, which never hold the cast back, it’s interesting and brave to face the monstrous like this.

Until 20 August 2022

Photos by Ben Wilkin

“The Tempest” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Sean Holmes’ new production of Shakespeare’s late work puts forward the comedy and romance in the play. With eye-catching, crowd-pleasing touches, this tempest is light and fun.

The storm that starts the play is brief – it looks good but I barely heard a line. The magical island the action happens on is akin to a holiday resort, populated by inflatables and palm trees, with Prospero and Miranda sunning themselves. Caliban is the staff – he even has a badge.

So, lots of silliness and not much time for the scholarly debates that surround the play. Instead the productions strongest moments come with getting laughs. There’s a fine Trinculo and Stefano (Ralph Davis and George Fouracres who make a great team). And unusually, Ciarán O’Brien’s Caliban gets laughs. Peter Bourke makes the pompous Gonzalo funnier that I’ve seen before.

Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciaran O'Brien in The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe (credit Marc Brenner)
Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciarán O’Brien

The humour is hard work though – the comedy effortful. And it isn’t particularly original: including the crowd is something directors at the Globe can never resist and it seems a pop song in Shakespeare is obligatory (even if the selection of Three Lions is topical). The jokes land and a lot of additions (delivered in an adlibbed style) are good. Yet it is Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Ariel who stands out for being understated and still funny. The irony that Ariel grounds the production is, like Clarke’s fantastic performance, the subtlest thing in the show.

The play’s romance is strong too. Miranda and Ferdinand (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Olivier Huband) make a sweet couple – they get giggles as well. But the price paid for the fun is predictable. There’s little tension or suspense. And when Holmes tries to do more than have fun, the production stumbles. Take the masque scene for the newlyweds (always tricky): any suggestion of challenge is lost in laughs. The production’s high spirits mean the supernatural in the play is only a side show.

Ferdy Roberts’ Prospero is still interesting. This mage is more than a touch mad and Roberts manages dignity despite spending much of the show in Speedos. But the idea that Prospero is enjoying his revenge becomes overpowering. When depth or emotion is needed, despite Roberts’ skill, it jars. A partying Prospero just doesn’t work – while the execution here deserves praise, the idea does not.

Until 22 October 2022

Photos by Marc Brenner

“101 Dalmatians” at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

While adults like lots of shows that are aimed at kids, giving children’s theatre a broad appeal isn’t a necessary condition for praise. This new musical from Douglas Hodge, based on Dodie Smith’s book, deserves plenty of stars but is aimed so firmly at youngsters it doesn’t offer much to anyone over 12.

Even the average teenager could get restless with the frantic energy in Timothy Sheader’s production. With Toby Olié’s strong puppetry and Colin Richmond’s shouty set, the feeling of a cartoon or Saturday morning TV show fills the stage. If you’re as old as I am, you might end up with a headache.

Which is not to say that the show shouldn’t earn your respect.

There are clever lyrics and jaunty, if not particularly memorable, songs. A stronger second half includes good numbers for children in the cast. It just isn’t a soundtrack you would want to listen to at home. Johnny McKnight’s book (from a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris) is a touch too crammed and could move quicker – but it is fun.

There’s a great villain too, of course, in Cruella De Vil. Updating the furrier’s best friend into a social media influencer is a great idea. Willing to risk “eternal Dalmatian” in hell to get a coat of puppies is a pun that was the highlight of the night for me. Kate Fleetwood takes the role (and a pair of very high-heeled boots) in her stride and gives a performance to be proud of.

In short, there’s little to fault in the production. Cruella’s accomplices make a pair of nicely old-fashioned crooks for George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon. And there are appealing performances from the dog’s “pets”, i.e., their owners, played by Eric Stroud and Karen Fishwick. Singing for the dogs and being literally a part of the puppet means that Danny Collins and Emma Lucia get even more points. The performances are bright and bouncy; even addressing the audience is done with an eye on their age.

There is a reservation it seems fair to raise – the venue itself. The Open Air Theatre has a tradition of work for children but this gorgeous location doesn’t seem particularly well used. Howard Hudson’s lighting design further on in the show gives an idea of what we are missing. And it is late at this time of the year. With a 7:45 start time for a relatively long show, most of the target audience are well past their bedtime by the time they get home.

Until 28 August 2022

“Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)” at the Southwark Playhouse

If quirky is what you want Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ show can’t be beaten. A “bio-historical musical” set in primordial soup, its characters really are yeast and the conflict revolves around how they evolve. So, top marks for crazy. The score tries hard and the production is enthusiastic. But the musical is, ultimately, just an oddity.

Credit where it’s due – the ideas are fine. With hints of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, the oldest yeast (a king, of course) battles against change. As the organisms encounter greed, ambition and love – for the first time in history – the chance to examine abstract concepts is embraced.

Regrettably, adding meta-theatrical touches proves distracting and predictable. It leads to a weak role for a narrator character, who comes too close to a very odd schoolteacher despite valiant efforts from Sarah Slimani. Being both self-consciously silly and serious is an interesting mix, but not a successful one. The joke of taking such absurdity as profound ends up repetitive.

A focus on romance (which buoys the second act) allows the performers who become the first multi-cellular organism (Stephen Lewis Johnston and Hannah Nuttall) a chance to shine. But despite plenty of spirit the show drags. The originality is only single-cell deep – we always know what’s coming next and it doesn’t come quickly enough.

Hollman and Kotis are too keen to tell a “dark tale”. Maybe the fear is that serious questions are needed to justify the bizarre premise? Maybe it’s part of the joke? Either way, the best of the humour comes from the production. There’s strong work from Shane Convery and Mari McGinlay as ‘the Wise’ and ‘the Sly’ as well an unwitting accomplice to courtly intrigue, played by Marisa Harris. All three performances are committed.

It’s director Benji Sperring’s work that shows Yeast Nation in the best light – inventive touches that add charm and fun too often missing from the script and lyrics. Lucie Pankhurst’s work on movement is strong, suggesting amoebas in a fashion that proves oddly hypnotic. In addition, while it probably shouldn’t – and while I can’t explain why – setting the whole thing in Yorkshire adds immeasurably. After all, why not? The accents become the anarchic touch the piece itself craves for but misses.

Until 27 August 2022

Photo by Claire Bilyard

“Give Me the Sun” at the Blue Elephant Theatre

Mamet Leigh’s neat new play has a father and son taking “time to talk”. In just an hour, Baba and Bashir, admirably performed by Aso Sherabayani and Joseph Samimi, discuss their deceased wife and mother, their lives in the UK and their future. What preoccupies the young Bashir is their past in Egypt. That his father is just as keen to avoid family history sets up the drama nicely.

The relationship is tentative at first, with a nervous teen and an anxious parent who quickly endear themselves to us. Director Majid Mehdizadeh builds tension in a fashion appropriate to the strong detail and sensitive touches of the script. And there’s a plot twist regarding Baba’s health, which becomes increasingly effective as the play goes on.

Baba’s soliloquies, directed at his wife’s photograph, are less convincing, and Sherabayani struggles in these difficult scenes. Leigh also stalls before the play’s finale – it’s too much of a surprise to hear Baba accused of being “full of hate”. Generally, though, the characters are interesting, and the controlled performances make for a fine study.

But a study of what? While Bashir wants to talk about Egypt – and even return there – Give Me the Sun says little about the experience of immigration: Baba is too tight lipped, and his son’s second-generation experience isn’t detailed enough. The play’s appeal is broader, and it is as a family drama with generational conflict that we see its strengths.

Does Baba withhold too much? Surely working in Tesco rather than as the doctor he is qualified to be, as well as rejecting his culture with such determination, needs more explaining. Or is his son too harsh? It’s easy to see Bashir romanticising the past and speaking from a position of ignorance. But whose fault is that lack of knowledge? Leigh’s concern for the younger character’s identity politics and the elder’s resistance to this are a worthwhile contribution to an ongoing debate.

Until 30 July 2022

Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Sara Aniqah Malik’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for Iris Theatre brings fun to the fore. There are flaws, and inconsistencies, with perhaps less actual Shakespeare than you might expect. But it’s a safe bet that most will enjoy this high energy, full-of-ideas show.

The action is set in the Athens Academy in 1996 (maybe the year suggests Ancient History for its young audience?). Shakespeare at school is fine for the story’s teenage lovers – Freddy Elletson and Ricky Oakley have their finest moments playing Lysander and Demetrius with tongues firmly in cheek – but the conceit fails other aspects of the play.

The acting troupe are recast as a Glee Club, which is jolly enough but forced (why not just the school drama department?). Theseus and Hippolyta are, predictably, Prom King and Queen, but, like their fairy counterparts Oberon and Titania, the roles lack tension. The additional text is witty, and plenty of the comedy touches land, but there’s an awful lot lost.

Magical is probably the word most used in connection with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not here. Despite Ailsa Joy’s impressive efforts as Puck – she’s great – the play’s fairies and potions don’t fit in. Drama is constantly deflated in the search for a joke. Most dangerously, there’s a strain on comprehension: the fear here is that you need to know the original play to work out what is going on and to get the jokes.

There are new ideas that illustrate a good deal of intelligence. The production wants to raise the question of consent. And the women in the play get more of a say in how they are treated. But these touches are too small or come too late and they sit heavily in the humour. Malik’s direction doesn’t help. Too much of the production needs tightening, especially in marshalling the crowd at this promenade performance and controlling the audience focus. Likewise, with the performances – there’s a lot of running around, which is impressive, but distracting.

Be not afeard

The production is invested in audience participation. In a bold strategy, you can:

  • dance at the prom
  • judge the play
  • become a fairy and tickle Bottom’s ears
  • and, in the case of one (poor) soul, become a fully-fledged member of the Glee Club

If this strikes fear into you, I understand. If the above sounds great, then this is the show for you.

Zena Carswell

The strongest comedians, Richard Holt (who plays Bottom) and the excellent Zena Carswell, are superb with the crowd. There are risks with calling on members of the public (a press night isn’t the best time to judge, as friends who are performers too turn up!) but best of luck to all. Drawing on good will is how Malik aims to create the friendship Puck calls for at the end of the play – and hopefully get the applause the show’s efforts deserve.

Until 13 August 2022

Photos by Katie Edwards

“The Dance of Death” at the Arcola Theatre

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version of August Strindberg’s play about mortality and marriage is terse and startling. The warring couple we watch torment each other are more than mouthpieces for speculation about the meaning of life – they are entertaining, too. And not shy of expletives. A view of existence as “funny as well as tragic” permeates so thoroughly that director Mehmet Ergen’s production intoxicates.

Lenkiewicz’s contribution is original. Her full-blown embrace of Strindberg’s humour is as dark as can be. Wondering whether to celebrate their Pearl anniversary, Alice and Edgar’s viciousness towards each other is bizarrely creative. Their venom gets laughs and contains a strange respect. 

The degree of farce in Strindberg’s world view – the idea that life may have no meaning and is “preposterous – is highlighted. Ergen’s direction must deal with this absurdity, including the unsettling idea that we cannot quite believe what anyone says. But being discombobulated is part of Alice and Edgar’s game. Like the play, their psychodrama is a contest full of the unexpected.

One thing that doesn’t surprise is the fantastic performances from the leads. The always excellent Hilton McRae and Lindsay Duncan are superb. McRae makes his bullish Army man imposing, but so independent and spirited that he still impresses. Duncan shows incredible subtlety while delivering the bluntest lines – viciousness drips from her mouth. While we feel sympathy for her life with her abusive husband, we can see she is a “devil, too”. Both performers show incredible control as the “bile that infects the air” is delivered in a frequently calm, almost deadpan, manner that works as comedy while reflecting chilling desperation.

Emily Bruni and Lindsay Duncan

A third role in The Dance of Death, Alice’s cousin, is skilfully portrayed by Emily Bruni. It’s hard not to see the character as overshadowed by the those who play with her – especially since why Alice and Edgar use her is at the back of our minds more than her predicament. Nonetheless, the cruelty behind the play is continually enforced by what happens to Bruni’s character.

Resignation – about all life as much as its end – in The Dance of Death is active, a powerful force. There’s plenty of fantasy, including the deliberate misconstruction of narratives, capably enhanced by lighting and sound design from David Howe and Daniel Balfour respectively. The play should be impossibly grim, but with humour and glimpses of humanity there are surprisingly consoling moments. I wouldn’t want to get an invitation to that anniversary party – these guys are frightening company – but I think it will go ahead. As for getting a ticket to see the show – that is a must.

Until 23 July 2022

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Favour” at the Bush Theatre

Six months and 40 shows into 2022, Ambreen Razia’s new play is the best thing I’ve seen so far. A deceptively simple story about three generations of one family, the script is hilariously funny and deeply moving. Four unforgettable characters are brilliantly realised by a talented cast. 

First up for praise – Favour has a decent plot. Beginning with Aleena’s release from prison, we want to know why she is late? What has happened to her mother, Noor, and daughter, Leila, while she has been away? And why was she in prison? Family secrets and feelings are revealed with skill under the careful direction of Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram. It isn’t all doom and gloom either – there’s a magical fantasy scene for Aleena and Leila with “sugar and TV allowed” that is winning. As for why we care so much – the answer comes with Razia’s excellent characters.

With Aleena, Avita Jay portrays a mercurial woman with mental health and addiction problems who is both dangerous and inspirational. The role of Noor is taken by Renu Brindle, who shows us a figure of fraught dignity gradually transforming. The youngest character Leila is exceptionally well written with a mix of smart remarks and naivety that is wry and emotional. Ashna Rabheru, who takes the part, is fantastic, especially in scenes that show the character suffering from anxiety.

Rina Fatania and Renu Brindle

There’s a fourth character too – Fozia, played by Rina Fatania – a busybody whose barbed comments get the audience howling with laughter. Fatania provides brilliant comedy though Fozia is more than a clown (note her departure from the stage).

Presenting different ages could be a clumsy shortcut for conflict.  But Razia is careful to provide depth so that Favour is continuously stimulates. And Razia’s intelligence is seen as the play tackles serious ‘issues’ too. It is notable that this is a story of working-class women and that the play is firmly rooted within a London Muslim community. Furthermore, the play is co-produced by Clean Break (whose members include women with lived experience of the criminal justice system). But this is all addressed with a matter of fact, fresh, feeling; none of these factors define the characters, no matter how much they must negotiate life with them.

Instead of problems, the love that comes with motherhood is the focus of these women’s lives. No matter accusations to the contrary, you never doubt the love the family feel for one another, and this drives the play. Razia has created a dramatic space for powerful reflections and truths. That the youngest character takes the lead is a suitably upbeat conclusion to a superb show.

Until 6 August 2022

Photos by  Suzi Corker

“My Fair Lady” at the English National Opera

Visiting the London Coliseum this summer, New York’s Lincoln Centre’s revival of Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece matches the musical’s classic stature. Like the piece, the production oozes quality from start to finish. The show is as consistently close to faultless as you could wish.

It’s the story of flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her Pygmalion transformation by Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering. But, of course, you knew that. The way in which the lower-class Eliza is treated by the toffs is handled with as much sensitivity as it can be. Director Bartlett Sher’s adoption of a thoughtful pace allows nuance to come through.

The slow(ish) treatment – there is little action here – might be expected to make the almost three-hour show drag a little. But entertainment is guaranteed by the hit score and the consistently clever lyrics. The cut-out-style sets (Michael Yeargan), including Higgin’s revolving home, are appealing, while the costumes (Catherine Zuber) are full of inventive touches.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Amara-Okereke and Malcolm-Sinclair

The production’s biggest strength comes with the strong cast. There is excellent support from Shariff Afifi as Freddie, who sounds wonderful. And strong work from Maureen Beattie’s housekeeping Mrs Pearce. Just don’t get too excited for the too brief appearance of Higgins’ mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Malcolm Sinclair takes the part of Colonel Pickering in his stride – an effortless performance that is a joy to watch. Above all, the leads are a delight. Amara Okereke makes an excellent Eliza, balancing the character’s fearful and feisty qualities; her voice is one of the sweetest I’ve heard but can also be full of temper. Okereke manages to make the number Show Me her own. Travelling with the show from the States, Harry Hadden-Paton is a suitably imperious professor with impeccable comic skills.

Sher is respectful of the show’s heritage all the way to the end. It’s a great moment but, overall, the production is a traditional affair. For critics, the show suffers a little in comparison to another US import, a radical reimagining Oklahoma! at the Young Vic. But few will question these performances or the forceful vision behind the show. Making sure a musical like My Fair Lady gets its fair due is a fantastic achievement.

Until 27 August 2022

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Back to the Future” at the Adelphi Theatre

The nostalgic appeal of bringing films to the stage makes them a safe bet for ticket sales. But to make the transition special, some risks need to be taken. Just plonking this story of time-traveller Marty McFly, stranded in the 1950s, on stage isn’t enough. Leaving aside whether Robert Zemeckis’ mid-1980s movie is any good (it isn’t), this adaptation has so little imagination it will only please the most die-hard fans.

Back to the Future is a big show – you get your money’s worth. The production, designed by Tim Hatley, looks expensive. The special effects, especially those with the famous DeLorean car, are impressive. But behind the sleek scene changes, the choreography is disappointing and the fight scenes poor. The action is well marshalled by director John Rando, but what’s going on is dull and the book from Bob Gale is slow.

Hugh Coles and Olly Dobson

Maybe this time travel drags because the characters are thin and the humour weak. Take Marty’s girlfriend, present to provide a ballad, or the school bully given malapropisms instead of jokes. Our hero is bland, which Olly Dobson’s energetic performance does little to correct. The only characters who stand out are Marty’s father and his scientist friend Doc Brown, played respectively by Hugh Coles, who makes an excellent West End debut, and Broadway star Roger Bart. But note how both men use to silly strutting or voices to get laughs – both effortful techniques that tire quickly.

You might forgive this if the score was any good. But both music and lyrics, by the hugely successful Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, just aren’t memorable enough. These are tunes you forget before they finish. The lyrics are leaden and long-winded with far too many references to self-help and time passing. It’s frustrating, as the potential is clear – the mix of 1980s and 1950s sounds could be interesting. But what about a musical dialogue between the decades? Instead we have a collection of humourless pastiches lacking any excitement.

While I’d usually be grateful that a show has an original score at all, this music is too close to songs heard in the background of a film, and they cannot hold a stage. Sentimental numbers are particularly painful. Even worse, the songs aren’t performed particularly well. Leaving aside whether the film’s hit number, The Power of Love, is any good (it isn’t), its brief rendition is the evening’s highlight.  Back to the Future ends up a waste of time.

Until 12 February 2023

Photos by Sean Ebsworth Barnes