All posts by Edward Lukes

“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It wasn’t the pandemic that scuppered my first effort to see this revival of Timothy Sheader’s award-winning production, but the British weather. A word about that trip, though, since the atmosphere was wonderful, even if torrential rain brought an early end to the evening. It just wouldn’t be summer without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the weather was a comforting touch of normality.

More importantly, front-of-house staff get the first cheer here: kitted out in PPE, but always smizing, they were welcoming and excited, even while wearing a visor and taking a temperature. Getting back to the theatre is the important thing. And, even with the show’s billing as a concert, the chance to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece is welcome – for Tim Rice’s excellent lyrics as much as the score. But that ‘concert’ description is modest. True, there’s no set for the show. And performers are careful to socially distance. But the idea of a fresh look at the Gospel story is present and powerful. And the manner in which current constraints have been used by Sheader, his cast and his choreographer Drew McOnie is brilliant. The production is far from a reduced experience.

From the moment when performers simultaneously take off face masks (to a cheer), the show is gripping. The use of microphones and cables as props, albeit an invention born from social distancing necessity, is effective. And McOnie’s work really comes into focus. Isolated movements, reflecting the emotions of whoever is singing, don’t just feel appropriate to our times – with the space around each performer, intensity is increased. There feels like more to look at and more appreciate than ever.

Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on characters’ immediate, personal relations to the story (including speculation as to Christ’s frame of mind with the marvellous number Gethsemane). This makes the acting in the roles – and Sheader’s direction of them – key. Declan Bennett’s Jesus is mercurial and complex, full of humanity, with a unique charisma. As all know, the show belongs to Judas, and a surprisingly sweet-sounding Ricardo Afonso explores circumstance and motivation in dynamic fashion. Current reviews already testify to the achievements of the cast. Their performances are a further aspect of the show that even the most simple of staging enhances rather than detracts from.

Until 27 September 2020

www.openairtheatre.com

“My Beautiful Launderette” from the Curve Leicester

In the hope of much-needed donations during lockdown, director Nikolai Foster has made this archival recording, from a production last year, available to theatre lovers. Hanif Kureishi’s own adaptation of his renowned 1985 film, concerning immigration and 1980s Britain, proves a real treat.

The recording is of a dress rehearsal – so not strictly suitable for review – but well worth watching. Playing to an empty auditorium, a few of the performances are somewhat shrill. But this is impressive work in progress from the nine-strong cast that made me envy those lucky enough to have seen the show.

Gordon Warnecke (who played Omar in the original film) and Kammy Darweish play brothers from Pakistan. Kureishi’s script conveys a strong sense of their history, even though they only meet in the final scene. There’s a similarly fantastic chemistry between the leads from a younger generation – Johnny and Omar – played by Jonny Fines and Omar Malik respectively. And a strong performance from Hareet Deol as family friend Salim, who is “cunning, dangerous and a liar”, with each quality shown with convincing menace.

It’s the changes Kureishi has made to his script, which Foster directs with confidence, that fascinate. Deol benefits, as his role is far more central as part of a boosted plot. The roles of Nasser’s wife and daughter (now “a revolutionary”) have both been expanded. There’s also more to hear from Johnny’s fascist friends, a move that isn’t so successful. The two characters here are just too stupid: that may be accurate given their views, but it doesn’t serve the piece dramatically – despite the violence in the play, they are bizarrely unthreatening.

While the love affair between Johnny and Omar was explicit in the film, Kureishi spends more time with their relationship on stage. Starting as friends, their love story develops with humour, tenderness and eroticism. The romance makes for some magical theatrical moments that use Grace Smart’s set and a soundtrack from none other than the Pet Shop Boys to great effect. 

Seeing this recording will surely make you miss live theatre more than ever, provoking fond memories for those lucky enough to have seen the show for real and providing a chance for the rest of us to glimpse a fascinating show I’d love to see revived sometime.

Available at www.curveonline.co.uk/the-show-must-go-online/

“Beat The Devil” at the Bridge Theatre

Leading the return to live theatre, Nicholas Hytner has his venue on the South Bank up and running. OK, it’s a season of monologues and we’ve seen a lot of them online during lockdown. And even though seats have been removed, rather than being left empty, the capacity is sadly shrunk. But the season, and this opening piece, are exciting. And it is great to be back inside an auditorium to experience theatre for real.

David Hare’s monologue is based on his own experience of contracting Covid-19. You might share my reservations about the subject matter – enough pandemic already! – but bringing Hare’s talent and intelligence to the subject is valuable. Full of insight and wit, with a perfect blend of humour around this serious topic, provides a healing quality to the show. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I left feeling that things are starting to get a little better.

The show has star appeal, with Ralph Fiennes taking the role of the writer. The delivery is impeccable, aided by Hytner’s confident direction, always aware of the text’s nuance. The balance of humour, humility and serious points is reflected well in the performance. The effects of this “dirty bomb” of a virus on Hare are detailed but contain no self-pity. More noticeable is the “survivor’s rage” when he comes to consider how politicians have been handling things.

It isn’t hard to claim Hare is preaching to the choir. There’s some fun personifying the virus, imagining it targeting Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s faults. Developing an eloquent disbelief at how incompetent our leaders have shown themselves has considerable bite. As topical as could be, Hare’s anger is hopefully an indication of his full recovery. Holding those with power to account, as he has so many times in the past, is healthy and invigorating.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

“Bare E-ssentials 4: A New Hope” from Encompass Productions

I have to admit I couldn’t make the live streaming of this new writing night. And I really did miss it! Thankfully, the show is available online and the atmosphere created by its host and “custodian of the scripts”, director Liam Fleming, can still be enjoyed. The evening has become quite a habit during Lockdown and the strong writing – comedy and drama – continues to live up to high expectations.
 
Cold Call by Scott Younger is a fun piece, centred on a bored data management employee flirting over the phone. The solid script is elevated by Fleming’s direction and the performance of Duncan Mason (pictured top). Younger has good sense of momentum and provides a nice twist.

A different kind of call centre is the setting for Donna Hoke’s take on the idea of ‘paying it forward’.  There are three performers (Encompass Productions are spoiling us), all impressive: Josh Morter, Simon Pothecary and Holli Dilon. A nice sense of the ridiculous makes this one enjoyable, and the idea of how charity, anonymity and social media mix could easily be developed.

Less successful, but with strong ideas, is Katie Murphy’s Just A Game. Two online gamers, with a strong back story, reveal secrets and lies. The piece has a lot of potential, so it’s a shame the script and performances are a little stilted.

The evening has a stirring finale with a powerful monologue by Alan Hall, about homelessness. Impeccably performed by Megan Pemberton, with Fleming’s direction sure-footed again, this is a particularly impressive piece – and, remarkably, the writer’s first monologue.
 
If there is a reservation, it’s clear that using phone or video calls as a device, while suited to an online show, is becoming the new normal. It makes sense – I get it – but is it wearing thin already? Yet fear not! While another online event is planned for the 30th of September, the company hopes to be back in a real theatre – The Old Bear in Kennington – in November. I’ll be buying a ticket as soon as I can.

www.encompassproductions.co.uk

“Godspell” On Line, In Concert

This recorded concert, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a legendary show, boasts a special introduction from its composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Fans have the chance to hear some great new performances from a strong cast. And it’s all in aid of good causes: Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Acting For Others and the National AIDS Trust.

I’m not a huge admirer of the piece, but there are plenty of good songs. While Schwartz knows variety is needed, both in style and emotional tempo, there aren’t enough stand-out numbers in a score that’s a little too easy on the ear. Thankfully, there’s no sense that any of the performers share my reservations. Among the West End stars assembled, it’s great to see and hear talents such as Alison Jiear, Jenna Russell and Sam Tutty. George Carter’s musical direction is of the highest quality.

Director Michael Strassen tries hard to tackle the fluid nature of the song cycle format. While original productions presented parables, here inserts reveal abstract concepts of what the songs are ‘about’: Prepare, Hope, Faith, even Class. The approach provides some structure but conflicts with the inclusion of photographs from the present day, mostly of care workers, that feel proscriptive. And Godspell’s religious content is strangely absent. It takes a while to remember that John-Michael Tebelak’s book is loosely based on the Gospel story. As a result, Darren Day’s emotive performance as Jesus ends up disconnected and rather odd.

Although a smaller problem, the performers are not helped by the video work in this production. The variety of backgrounds is nice, but the split scenes, phone screens (of course) and graphics are frequently, well, naff. Especially disappointing is their intrusion in Ruthie Henshall’s number, Turn Back, O Man, performed in the bath! With a rubber duck on board, we don’t need bubbles added – the performance alone is enough.

Another notable exception – some humour – comes with a fine performance from Ria Jones of Learn Your Lessons Well. Otherwise, the tone is earnest, dry even. Plenty of effort is made to inject energy (Jiear is especially good at this) but as a collection of short films, momentum never takes off. Much of this is not Strassen’s fault – it’s a reflection of the show itself. While it always sounds top notch, the piece is downright monotonous.

Until 29th August 2020

www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

“As You Like It” at the New Normal Festival

The disruption the coronavirus has brought to the theatre affects all aspects of the industry. Spare a thought for those trying to enter the business, starting in an uncertain profession, with their training disrupted and even fewer opportunities than usual. Determination and enterprise are needed more than ever and last night I saw plenty of both. Carrying on, against the odds, to present a previously cancelled graduation show makes this work, from students of the London College of Music, especially cheering.

Shakespeare’s ever popular romantic comedy is presented as part of a festival at the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building in Wandsworth. The stage is a courtyard with an imposing yew tree and the cast impress with a clear sense of the space. Further praise for all: the delivery is uniformly clear with hardly a line a lost despite Storm Francis and a flight path overhead. 

Credit is shared with director Rachel Heyburn who has done well by her responsive crew, presenting a no-nonsense version of the show, less edited than most productions. I didn’t sense any nerves either, more a keen sense of enjoying performing – always appealing to an audience. Some lovely musical interludes added to the production’s charm.

It’s in the nature of reviews that not everyone is mentioned – apologies in advance. But the show has a clear leading man with Dominic Hyam’s Orlando, who makes the story very much his own. The youthful petulance the role requires is present alongside heroic touches. The central romance for Orlando could have more humour. Georga de la Cour’s Rosalind, always technically accomplished, is best alongside a charming Celia played by Savannah-Raé Gordon – there’s a great sense the two are friends. 

The other love pageants that make up the play are all “truly play’d”, with unflagging energy. Again, a touch more humour might be expected. But there is fun with a waspish Jacques that allows Miles Griffin to stand out in the role. There’s a similarly impressive performance from Rob Hardie, who makes a socially distanced wrestling match a highlight and then takes on the role of a Lord of the Forest (showing off a lovely voice). In taking every chance to shine, Hardie is a good reminder of how exciting seeing new talent can be. A professional production all round, Heyburn makes sure the production is far more than a showcase and all involved should be proud.

Until 25 August 2020

www.newnormalfest.co.uk

“Jury” from the Park Theatre

Yet another venue missed by many during the lockdown is Jez Bond’s Finsbury Park theatre. But while the stage lights are off, work has still been going on. This entertaining new play from Martin Murphy, part of a creative learning programme forced online, is the result.

Written to be performed as a conference call, the format may be already over-familiar but it works well enough. Jury is distinguished by its ambition and subject matter. If the comedy and drama aren’t as well balanced as they might be, it’s a lot more interesting than its real-life equivalent.

The scenario first: this Zoom call is a serious one. Twelve members of the public are called to a high-profile criminal trial. The pressure social distancing has placed on the justice system, added to by a time limit on deliberations, adds topicality. If the comedy tone, like some of the characters, tackles the problem lightly, the issue is well-worth remembering.

Of the 12 characters we meet, many are too broadly depicted and their prejudices a touch too transparent. Possibly, the wish to distinguish a large number of people quickly preoccupied Murphy. Nonetheless, Sara Odeen-Isbister’s heavily accented Ukranian Anya is naughtily funny. And Stefania Jardim’s Jal is great value, too. It’s all held together nicely by the increasingly exasperated foreperson Mel, played by Jacquie Cassidy. Maria Thomas manages to inject some drama with her character, Keenan, talking the most sense. It’s a shame Eileen Christie’s character of Pat is the only one to have serious moments alongside nice comic touches.

As for the show’s ambition, anyone who has to deal with calls of this kind is sure to be impressed by the rehearsal process, let alone the final outcome. Director Amy Allen, with help from video editor Akeal Iqbal, highlight the flaws and problems of the technology with a natural touch. The action is swift and exciting. This is one conference call that isn’t so frustrating you want it to be over as soon as possible.

Until 2 September

parktheatre.co.uk

“Fanny and Stella” at The Garden Theatre

After 149 days of live theatre lockdown – yes, I have been counting – I was always going to love the first trip back to a show. Thank you, thank you, LAMBCO Productions, for the first fringe production since March. But, sincerely, Glenn Chandler’s play with music is a jolly affair that is well worth seeing. It’s entertaining, interesting and a lot of fun.

Chandler takes on a lot, and admittedly over-reaches. Based on true events, a show-within-a-show format tells the story of performers Ernest Boulton (AKA Stella) and Frederick William Park (Fanny), who dressed as women offstage as well as on and were arrested for doing just that in 1871. The history is light: there’s not enough shock about the men’s “painted faces” and not much peril. It is in questionable taste that the medical examination Boulton and Park had to undergo is played for laughs. And the idea of either man as a transwoman is not explored. Chandler’s decision is to entertain, and this is what he does.

Alex Lodge in Fanny and Stella at The Garden Theatre Vauxhall
Alex Lodge

Going for pleasure makes the setting of The Eagle pub garden in Vauxhall appropriate and the audience were clearly smiling under their face masks. All manner of crudity and old jokes are allowed and the cast camp it up considerably (David Shields’ clever costume designs are useful here). Special mention to the hard-working Mark Pearce, who takes on so many roles and accents. And to Alex Lodge, who plays one of the (many) loves of Fanny’s life, injecting some romantic moments and also doing well as a gutter-press journalist.

The evening’s stars are Jed Berry and Kane Verrall in the inimitable title roles, which both the script and director Steven Dexter balance nicely. The chemistry is great and there’s a convincing sense of sisterhood along with some fine comic timing. Both work the crowd wonderfully. All of this is accompanied by Charles Miller’s clever little songs – all, importantly, performed live. It really is a great night out… the best I’ve had in 149 days, actually.

Until 25 August 2020

www.fannyandstellamusical.com

Photos by Alex Hinson

“Alice, A Virtual Theme Park”

How much you enjoy Creation Theatre’s online show might depend on how many Zoom meetings you attend. I am afraid I go to too many. But since the experience is aimed at families, who don’t have to use it for work, here’s hoping for its success. The kids I saw watching seemed to enjoy it (along with a pet dog, who was very interested at one point).

In a series of meetings (be quick clicking from one to the next) we join the characters from Lewis Carroll’s novel. The performances are committed, I enjoyed Dharmesh Patel’s Mad Hatter and Annabelle Terry’s Cook. And there are inventive touches that Tom Richardson makes the most of – for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – that are a lot of fun.

It’s all out for interactivity. There’s the chance to shout and dance, as well as a card trick someone has to help with. And, very cleverly, draw too (you watch on your computer but have a phone ready for this bit). All the cast deal well with drawing in the audience. The narrative is hard to pick out, so it might be difficult to follow without already knowing the story – maybe make it bedtime reading beforehand? And it would be nice, as well as useful, to see more of Leda Douglas’s Alice. But Zoe Seaton’s adaption effectively emphasises the craziness in the original and makes it entertaining.

While it wouldn’t be a Zoom meeting without some glitches, conversations between the characters are clearly well rehearsed and Seaton has done another good job as director. The fact remains that too many people have too many of these meetings and, even if this is a lot more fun than most, it’s an unforgiving format. Credit to Creation Theatre for making so much of the technology… it still seems like a lot of work for little result to grumpy old me.

Until 30 August 2020

www.creationtheatre.co.uk

“Blindness” at the Donmar Warehouse

All hail Michael Longhurst and his Covent Garden venue for staging a show during the lockdown. Not a performance exactly – the description is a ‘sound installation’ – as it is a recording of Juliet Stevenson that the audience listens to through those fancy headsets. It’s still a chance to get back into a theatre. That, alone, is worth applauding.

Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel is close to home – it’s about an epidemic, albeit one where the population suddenly goes blind. But there’s still escapism and entertainment in the far-fetched story. It’s exciting at first – a tale of the unexpected with creepy touches that Stevenson narrates exquisitely.

Close your eyes…

…for a bit of plot spoiler. As the disease becomes rife, Stevenson moves from being the storyteller to a doctor’s wife, who joins him in suitably gothic quarantine, pretending to be afflicted herself. Too quickly, Blindness becomes too generic. The script is well constructed and full of strong imagery. As with the last motif of the play, Saramago’s writing has a certain grace. And it is always impeccably directed by Walter Meierjohann. But it is not original. This is a very standard sci-fi societal breakdown: surely such views convince less and less? The only surprises come from not encountering familiar tropes; why isn’t the one woman immune investigated and what about those who are already blind?

You can open them again…

Few would be thrilled to go to the theatre for a radio play. OK, maybe I am desperate enough. But, with sound design from Ben and Max Ringham and the sculptural work from lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, this piece comes closer to immersive than many that aim for that label. 

Along with a sense of excitement from the solicitous staff, there’s also the irreplaceable connection of watching as part of an audience. With the hope that none of this talented team is offended, my highlight came at the end, catching the eye of another theatregoer who, like me, wondered if we should clap. Yes, we can, and yes, we did – deservedly so.

Until 22 August 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com