All posts by Edward Lukes

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

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

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

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

“A voice to her scream”

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

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

Until 26 November 2022

Photo by Tara Kelly

“Mouthful of Fingers” at the Bridge House Theatre 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until 12 November 2022 

Photo by Hayley and Kyle Madden

“From Here to Eternity” at the Charing Cross Theatre

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

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

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

Jonny Amies as Maggio photographed by Mark Senior

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

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

Until 17 December 2022

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Evening Conversations” at the Soho Theatre

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

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

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

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

Until 12 November 2022

Photo by Harry Elletson

“Mary” at the Hampstead Theatre

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

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

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

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

Rona Morison in Mary at The Hampstead Theatre
Rona Morison

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

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

Until 26 November 2022

Photos by Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

Samuel Tracy

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

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

Until 5 November 2022

Photos by Craig Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photos by Kira Kynd

“Something in the Air” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

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

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

Claire Price

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

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

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

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

Until 12 November 2022

Photos by Steve Gregson

“But I’m a Cheerleader: The Musical” at the Turbine Theatre

Musical theatre and Jamie Babbit’s 1999 cult film are an easy fit in this new show. If it seems a stretch to make a rom-com movie about teens undergoing gay ‘conversion’ therapy, adding show tunes only aids the quirky appeal. Camp as can be and a lot of fun, this show has a serious aim that makes it utterly heart-warming.

These teens are confused and unhappy, so of course you feel for them. They are being treated terribly. And, for all the stereotypes on stage, Bill Augustin’s book makes sure this is a set of characters we care for. It’s a firm base for the show.

Megan Hill - But I'm a Cheerleader - The Turbine Theatre - Photo Credit Mark Senior (2)
Megan Hill

Cheerleading Megan, whose parents pack her off to the True Direction camp before she herself understands her sexuality, is simply sweet but Josie Kemp (stepping up to the role for Jessica Aubrey) does a great job. The romance with a girl called Graham is made more interesting by performer Megan Hill’s carefully controlled angst.

As for the comedy – that’s OK, too. The show has to play with being tasteless (those stereotypes aren’t going to please everyone) and that’s tricky. Take the ‘Simulated Sexual Experience’ that is part of the therapy – it’s flat, despite a good number and a lot of effort.

But I laughed – and the delivery of the jokes will probably improve during the run. The dialogue itself is tight (having the cheerleaders as a kind of Greek chorus could have been explored more). And the show has a great villain (another good move) in Mary Brown, who runs True Direction… with mixed motivations! Another Cover, due to Georgina Hagen’s indisposition, Freddie Love gives a star performance to be proud of, delivering Mary’s many insults with relish.

There is a feelgood factor to But I’m a Cheerleader that proves winning and extends to the cast – this is a show that enjoys letting performers shine.

Doubled-up roles allow cast members Ash Weir, Michael Mather and Kenneth Avery-Clark time in the impress. In superb voice as the camp’s instructor Mike, Noel Sullivan gets to don a wig as a drag queen. And Ciaran Spencer – a third cast member stepping into a different role – should also be pleased. Best wishes to those ill and well done all on working together so well.

It helps that what the cast has to work with is solid as well as upbeat. The music by Andrew Abrams is heavy on preppy, with neat cheerleading touches, although ballads show further skills. The opening numbers are strong and the finale of the first act excellent. Augustin’s lyrics are clear, sometimes a little too easy, but getting Gertrude Stein and Georgia O’Keeffe into a song scores points. Best of all, this is more than a collection of songs – Abrams has written a coherent score that will please anyone who loves musicals.

The show is cramped, despite the clever set by David Shields, so the choreography from Alexzandra Sarmiento doesn’t get much of a chance. I take this as a good sign. There’s a confidence to the piece that bodes well and creates a great atmosphere. But I’m a Cheerleader is begging for a bigger venue, and plenty would cheer if it got one.

Until 27 November 2022

Photos by Mark Senior

“The Band’s Visit” at the Donmar Warehouse

A big production in a small space is one way to get a buzz. This Broadway hit, by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, has a huge cast considering the venue: there are the titular musicians, on tour from Egypt, and those they unwittingly encounter, the locals of a nowhere-town in Israel. But it’s the committed low-key tone – the claim from the beginning that what we are about to see is not very important – that makes the show stand out.

The visiting musicians get involved in some heavy stuff, offering advice on life and love, with romances beginning, or not, and ending… maybe. And there’s a lot of consideration as to how important music can be – transforming lives and bringing people together. But Moses’ book has a consciously slow pace, which director Michael Longhurst embraces. The action is deliberately minimal: characters visit a park, go on a date, and wait for a phone. The show becomes a triumph of restraint and modesty.

The music and lyrics by Yazbek are often quiet too – there’s no search for a show-stopping number, although the songs are fantastic, and the score deserves its Tony Award (one of six!). A fascinating mix of the Middle Eastern with Western influences, it’s exciting to hear a musical that sounds so different. The sentimental songs are excellent – stand-alone hits – and Yazbek has a gift for comedy too.

Although a true ensemble piece, Miri Mesika shows she’s a star in the role of café owner Dina. With a great voice and sure command of the comedy in the piece, Mesika makes her character believable and admirable. The connection between Dina and the band’s conservative conductor proves fascinating through the chemistry between Mesika and Alon Moni Aboutboul. It is striking that the focus for the show is middle life, both characters have a history and share a sense of calm resignation.

There are also strong performances from a married couple in trouble, played by Marc Antolin and Michal Horowicz, with a role for Peter Polycarpou as her character’s father providing a perspective from later in life. And given two fantastic numbers, it’s impossible to ignore Harel Glazer and Ashley Margolis as younger men starting their romantic lives.

It is clear that Yazbek and Moses have more ambition for the piece than their tone suggests – the ages of characters show that much. There is a sanguine approach that gives the work a distinct flavour, with beauty in everyday things that has tremendous charm. Hope is the big theme in the end – past and future. The Band’s Visit searches out hope at all stages of life and turns out to be, well, important, after all.

Until 3 December 2022