All posts by Edward Lukes

“Catching Comets” at the Pleasance Theatre

Piers Black’s monologue provides a look at modern masculinity and movies through the character of Toby – an apprehensive astronomer, who, bless him, is far more diffident than he should be. Toby’s love life is combined with a fantasy about saving the world, inspired by action films. As Toby imagines the man he wants to be – as compensation for feeling small, stupid, and scared – a tale unfolds that is slim but sweet.

It’s hard not to see Catching Comets in relation to lots of men that theatre-makers have shown us lately. Toby is a good bloke – surprisingly, annoyingly so: apologetic to a fault and deliberately far from toxic. But, despite the recognition that many models of masculinity are just silly, what to replace them with is a bigger question. There’s a strange preoccupation here that apologising is a failing. And there’s an anger in the character that Black could explore more. Regrettably, the woman Toby loves (his “magical time-melting girl” – nice phrase) is a shadowy figure. As with “the best friend” Emma, Black’s women are too indulgent and a touch saintly.

It’s possible that discussing toxic masculinity brings about the kind of ‘A-Level’ analysis that annoys Toby. After all, Catching Comets is a comedy. The humour is a mixed bag, though. Toby’s insecurities are – regrettably – predictable and repetitive. It’s hard to laugh too hard at a character you feel sorry for. The jokes around the spoof action film in Toby’s head are much better. With clever parallels to the character’s ‘real’ life, appearing at moments of stress, the Bond-style hero is shown as truly ridiculous. The details are great (I loved his coat, described as “newly polished Jaguar fur”).

There’s no doubt Catching Comets is a great showcase for performer Alastair Michael. With help from Black’s direction (as well as Chi-San Howard as movement director) Michael’s physicality is impressive. He does well with the contrast between Toby’s timidity and his action hero alter ego, as well as cameo characters. Best of all, Michael sets up a great rapport with the audience. Oh, and his comedy Dutch accent is brilliant.

Not surprisingly, resolution is a lot to ask from Black. We know how action movies end… and, disappointingly, it isn’t much of a spoiler to mention the conclusion of Catching Comets.

Catching Comets at the Pleasance Theatre

Having criticised Hollywood heroes, Black has backed himself into a corner – and ends up leaving Toby hanging. But denying us a happy ending feels a let-down, especially when there have been plenty of laughs. It’s a testament to Toby winning us over that is seems a shame he can’t sort out what kind of hero he might really be. At least there’s plenty of room for a sequel.

Until 19 September 2021

www.pleasance.co.uk

“The Memory of Water” at the Hampstead Theatre

As part of the “Hampstead Originals” season, celebrating significant pieces that started off at the venue, this new production reminds us why Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is popular. A satisfying comedy drama and a gift to performers, The Memory of Water has plenty to please.

Within the scenario of three sisters together before their mother’s funeral, Stephenson injects a surprising amount of comedy with a superb ear for dialogue and strong characters. Take your pick from doctor Mary, health food entrepreneur Teresa or the troubled, younger, Catherine. Each has an appeal. And there are three top notch performances to enjoy – from Laura Rogers, Lucy Black and Carolina Main – each a careful detailed study.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Lucy Black, Carolina Main and Laura Rogers

There are good jokes, inappropriate reactions and a down to earth humour that is great fun. Stephenson examines sibling relations with confidence and risqué insight. Meanwhile the theme of memory proves stimulating (if not particularly subtle when it comes to Mary’s research into amnesia) as the sisters’ recollections of their past, and their mother, diverge.

After the interval, The Memory of Water gets bolder and darker. Painful truths and shocking secrets are revealed. The grief within the play becomes multi-layered. And we start to take Catherine’s health problems more seriously. Harsh words are spoken and the action is frequently gripping.

It is with quieter moments that director Alice Hamilton’s command of the play is clearest. While the comedy is strong (with Catherine’s tantrums, Teresa’s neurosis and Mary’s deadpan lines) it’s the pacing of more dramatic scenes that really impresses. Ever alert to the space the text needs, and aided by Johanna Town’s lighting design, Hamilton guides the audience magnificently. Given Sam Yates’ success with the venue’s previous show, Hampstead Theatre is clearly a home for directing talent.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James

While there’s no doubt that The Memory of Water is a play focused on women, and their relationships with one another, Stephenson deals just as well with the men we meet. Indeed, even the girls’ father, long dead, is a vivid presence. Again, there are great roles for Teresa’s husband and Mary’s married lover that Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James do well with.

A final strength with The Memory of Water comes from the ghostly role of the girls’ mother, Vi. Played by Lizzy McInnerny, with a particularly fine study of her character’s accent, her interactions with Rogers were my favourite scenes. Vi is far more than a foil for her daughter: gifted her own voice, showing us a previous generation, and adding a twist to what we have seen. Vi is funny and hurt while her maternal legacy and suffering from Alzheimer’s takes us to the heart of the play’s theme. Stephenson’s description of the cruel disease, that Vi feels “broken into islands”, is brilliant and moving. As Vi’s influence on her daughters becomes clearer, McInnerny becomes magisterial. Despite Mary’s request, Vi is “never” really going to leave her daughter; like the play, she is a woman to remember.

Until 16 October 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Dear Elizabeth” at Theatro Technis

Theatregoers get used to professionalism and perfection. This blog is full of questions about choices and quibbles about generally (very) good shows. So the idea of a production with the cast coming cold to the script – with different performers every night – has a peculiar appeal. A deliberate move away from polish is novel and oddly exciting.

Visiting North London from the Gate Theatre, Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of letters between American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It is love story, of sorts, that takes the decades and complexities of an original romance in its stride. But the performers don’t know what the letters contain or what the ending will be. The result is a sense of adventure – and fun.

Game for the challenge the night I attended were performers Martins Imhangbe and Roberta Livingston. The run will pair an established actor with a recent graduate – a nice idea. But I suspect the readings will generally remind those of us who hate the idea of speaking aloud that actors – through their training – are a different breed! Imhangbe and Livingston were both assured and charismatic, and showing how much they were enjoying themselves proved contagious. Receiving packages of letters – including instructions – and props throughout, they always had the audience on their side.

Of course, there were more stumbles over words than usual. But with beautiful speaking voices and some magical ability to inject emotion into phrases off the bat, we almost need reminding that Imhangbe and Livingston hadn’t seen the text before. And here is where the skill behind the show comes in – that spontaneity is cleverly controlled.

Only the cast is unprepared! The carefully constructed script by Sarah Ruhl bring us close to the poets’ lives and love affairs with ease. All kinds of topics – focusing on health and work – are skilfully covered, providing considerable insight. And Ruhl has a careful eye on the ethical implications of her project with a brilliant section that has Bishop criticising Lowell for using another person’s biography in his art. 

Director Ellen McDougall, with the aid of designers Moi Tran, Jessica Hung Han Yun and Jon Nicholls (set, lighting and sound, respectively) retains a surprising degree of control. Paying special attention to the pace of the performance, factoring in time for the actors to work out what the hell they do next, without pausing the action, is brilliantly done. 

The performers and audience are together in taking cues at the same time – the music and lighting point us towards responses simultaneously. The concept behind Dear Elizabeth only goes part of the way to ensure the evening is a success. But making theatre so immediate – so in the moment – is especially timely after we’ve missed the stage for so long. The show also reminds us how varied the talents behind any production are. And I hope all involved take this blog as a kind of thank-you letter.

Until 18 September 2021

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

“Rockets and Blue Lights” at the National Theatre

Winsome Pinnock’s play tackles the subjects of race and history with ambition and ability. Splitting the action between the 19th century and the present day, we see JMW Turner painting and contemporary creatives at work on a film about him. As both sets of artists engage with the issue of slavery, Pinnock’s dialogue with history becomes vivid and urgent.

There’s trouble among the filmmakers as a director and his star, Lou – a particularly grand role for Kiza Deen – argue over artistic integrity. Meanwhile, the story of a young artist and his inspiring teacher (characters you immediately get behind, carefully portrayed by Anthony Aje and Rochelle Rose) brings another level to the debate about the role of art and education. The commentary on creativity and society is intelligent and provocative.

Such vivid questioning of whether art can only “bear witness” or whether it can do more make the historical part of the play pale slightly. It’s a shame. The plot is strong: an adventure for Turner and a tragedy for a black sailor called Thomas make compelling stories. The latter includes a love story especially well portrayed by Karl Collins and Rose. But the politics Pinnock wants to explore sound hollow in her well-drawn characters’ mouths.

It isn’t that people didn’t question slavery or race during this period – it’s just the effort to state these debates in our terms. Maybe how the 19th century would phrase the argument is too unpalatable or, more likely, incomprehensible. Pinnock makes the debate smart and relatable. It’s good to credit the past with intelligence while interrogating it. But we can’t pretend that the dialogue doesn’t jar now and again.

Any reservations disappear after the interval as Rockets and Blue Lights really takes off: increasingly ambitious, full of surprises and even more political. Bringing together periods in time is well done – with dance and ghostly visitations. The use of music, composed and directed by Femi Temowo, is inspired. Arguments about the legacy of slavery, and injustices both past and present, lead to strong imagery from Pinnock.

Having the cast double up between the historical periods ensures impressive performances – and suggests connections between characters that make the mind boggle. Director Miranda Cromwell’s staging is strong, switching effortlessly between the time periods and handling distressing scenes with power and tact. This fine balance is particularly impressive – there is none of the “torture porn” that Lou fears might appear in the film she is working on. Considerable sophistication is the undercurrent for the whole show.

Until 9 October 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Brinkoff / Moegenburg

“Salomé” at the Southwark Playhouse

Lazarus Theatre Company’s exemplary production of Oscar Wilde’s infamous play benefits from Ricky Dukes’ forceful directorial vision and strong performances from a committed cast.

The production is exemplary in the sense that it suggests how to deal with a difficult text. More like a poem than a play, Salomé is hard work. Even nowadays we can see why Wilde’s morbid, exaggerated language was once thought unhealthy…it’s kind of, well, sickly. The production makes the action as clear and concise as possible. Mostly doing justice to the poetry (with the exception of added expletives) there’s even a sense of humour, which the text itself notably lacks.

Salome, Lazarus - Pauline Babula
Pauline Babula

Further credit for Dukes comes with efforts to recreate the sense of scandal the play once engendered. Young Salomé’s bargain with her step-father is made explicitly erotic with sexual tension and exploitation equally highlighted. This is achieved in sophisticated fashion thanks in part to the casting of Herod and his wife (Jamie O’Neill and Pauline Babula) who give subtle performances suggesting the power play between them as well as their characters’ individual lust for sex or power.

Games play a big part. The famous dance becomes a creepy parody of childhood fun – a brilliant move – with tag and hide-and-seek making it queasy to watch. Desire is consistently identified as dangerous – creating tension and getting to the heart of Wilde’s obsessions.

Salome, Lazarus - Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas

Further provocation comes with the casting of the leads, surely deliberately removed from the ‘blind’ casting we usually applaud. There’s a charge – and a challenge – from having a Prince Salome and a Jokanaan, explicitly praised for the whiteness of his skin, performed by a black man. The expectations of the audience (and author) are questioned. That said, what really gives the production power are the detailed and skilled performances. In the title role, Fred Thomas mixes arrogance and fear with desperation, managing to make this murderer surprisingly sympathetic.

Riveting as Thomas is, especially in the harrowing finale, eyes should really be on Prince Plockey who takes the part of the Baptist. Plockey brings a power to the prophet that makes you understand why he is feared. A continual stately procession around the table that is Sorcha Corcoran’s clever set design mounts in power. The focus Plockey brings to this pacing is fantastic and each announcement from the doomed figure creates a sense of dread fitting to the text’s doom-laden tone. Salomé is Jokanaan and Plockey’s show which, despite the title, is exactly as it should be.

Until 11 September 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Adam Trigg

“When Darkness Falls” at the Park Theatre

The promise of a spine-chilling ghost story is always welcome, and this show has not one but five spooky tales, which surely counts as good value.

The spectres range from the 17th century to the present day, framed within the device of a local Guernsey historian, one John Blondel, vlogging. There’s a lot of history – including witch hunts and pirates – that will have you Googling background stories afterwards. The carefully constructed script, from Paul Morrissey and James Milton, plays with setting up connections between the stories well.

Morrissey and Milton want just the right amount of sensation to distinguish the narrator, Blondel’s vlog guest, from your average journalist. They have their reasons. A newspaper’s approach to ghost stories is said to be “short, cheap, generic, repetitive” – avoiding all that creates a script that is a solid, traditional affair. If the dialogue isn’t shy of clichés, they are justified in adding to the atmosphere.

In short, the tales are good. And the telling is even better. These aren’t easy roles. Blondel is presented, at first, as a too-predictable sceptic. Attempts to lighten the mood are a misstep on Morrissey and Milton’s part. And a potential plot spoiler…

When-Darkness-Falls-credit-Pamela-Raith
Will Barton and Alex Phelps

‘The Speaker’ is a little too obviously otherworldly. This isn’t really hidden (should it be?). Don’t worry, as there are more than enough twists to come.

While the characters aren’t perfect, the performances are. Will Barton works hard as Blondel suggesting an underlying fear with great skill. Participating in the stories – as a character as well as a commentator – impresses further. As The Speaker, Alex Phelps mixes vulnerability with a delicious sense of menace, and manages to vary a performance that could all too easily be static. Above all, Phelps is a great storyteller.

Further aiding effectiveness is Morrissey’s direction and some particularly strong sound design from Daniel Higgott. Wind, whistles and screaming might not be particularly original, but they work. Even better, Higgott appreciates the power of silence and uses it to create tension very well indeed. Excitement and interest are present throughout this quality show. Chilling spines is harder but, if When Darkness Falls doesn’t quite manage that, it is still sure to entertain.

Until 4 September 2021

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Pamela Raith

“Scab” at the Arcola Theatre

Theatregoers continue to be spoilt for monologues, but in a crowded field this script by Luke Stapleton is credible and safe to recommend: Scab is thought-provoking and entertaining, with an exceptional performance from Conor Lowson that should not be missed.

The young man we meet, who Lowson makes engaging throughout, is an unwilling Samaritan to Keith, an injured old man who is suffering from dementia. Coming to know Keith’s estranged daughter Carla and helping with the construction of a boat, establishes themes of family, aging and trauma that Stapleton makes intriguing.

Despite the broad Northern accents there might be less sense of place than intended. The plentiful details in the script focus on food – these are good (and having sold ice creams I can confirm Solero’s are for a sophisticated clientele). But more diversity would be welcome to locate Scab in place and time.

More seriously, if you like your writing neat, there are loose ends here. We learn about Keith’s past but are still in doubt as to the motivation and pain of others. Stapleton has created characters we want to know more about – well done – but it’s disappointing that mystery remains despite a strong finale.

Nonetheless, there’s an impressive imagination behind the script. And some vivid imagery that mixes the mundane and the magical in a distinctive fashion. The performance of the text, with crudity and invitations to marvel at beauty, is hugely impressive…if not always for the best reasons.

Director Jamie Biddle appreciates speed is important to Stapleton’s work. A rapid delivery shows a stream of consciousness and brings naturalism, aiding conversations between characters. Lowson delivers all this very well – for sheer speed he cannot fail to impress. But I wonder if, rather than waiting for the audience to accustom themselves to the pace, it could be slower at first? That said, reservations about the breakneck speed fade when taking into account performance conditions.

While the main theatre is closed for renovations, the Arcola’s outdoor tent proves an unforgiving venue. It may be Covid Safe but it is far from soundproof. With a queue for the local roof top bar going past the theatre, and partygoers drinking while they wait, it felt like Lowson was pretty much acting in the street. All the more credit for such a committed performance – a nuanced delivery with fantastic energy. Lowson didn’t flinch despite conditions – both he and Scab won my admiration as a result.

Until 21 August 2021

www.arcolatheatre.com

“Carousel” at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The joy of theatre is that it changes all the time – it’s alive. And most can agree that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical, wonderful as it is, needs some changes. The show’s lead, wife-beating fairground attendant Billy Bigelow, is a tough sell for our times. And the too casual acceptance of his violence, including that from Mrs B, means that the romance leaves a nasty taste, despite the sublime score. Boldly attempting a new kind of Carousel, director Timothy Sheader can be applauded – the aim is admirable – even if the production doesn’t quite succeed.

Tom Scutt’s bare design is an indication that this Carousel isn’t going to be pretty or charming. Any nostalgia about the New England setting is replaced with British regional accents that manage to bring an air of working-class realism surprisingly well. And Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography shows us a world of work and violence. The only sheer delight is a wonderful Carrie Pipperidge, where Christina Modestou’s lilting Welsh voice made me wonder how she would deal with all manner of show tune standards.

Carly Bawden and Christina Modestou in Carousel at Regents Park
Carly Bawden and Christina Modestou

Women come to the fore in Sheader’s vision for the show. To be fair to Rodgers and Hammerstein, that isn’t hard. Carly Bawden’s Julie – the lead with bad taste in men – intrigues; she has an otherworldly quality to go with her out-of-this-world voice. Joanna Riding’s matriarchal Nettie is convincing, while the carousel owner Mrs Mullin is made a forceful presence by Jo Eaton-Kent. The ensemble provides memorable moments, confronting the audience and Billy about his crimes.

Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett
Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett

As for our kind of hero, Declan Bennett’s Billy has none of the usual charisma… fair enough. Billie is a weak, feckless character (too easily swayed by Sam Mackay’s somewhat pantomime villain, Jigger) and Bennett does this well. But Billy being boring makes the love story at the heart of the show unbelievable. We know Julie is a fool to fall for him, but if the audience doesn’t fall as well – just a little – the show becomes robbed of emotion.

A chilly Carousel then, but that isn’t the biggest problem here. While Sheader’s vision can be respected – it’s clever and clear – changes to the score are less successful, and updating the music is a riskier affair. Again, the approach is bold: a classic American score has hints of Americana (with surprisingly modern touches), but seemingly at random. The additions will keep you guessing – they entertain – but hampered by excessive amplification the sound is sometimes cheap and tinny. Overpowering the singers more than once, the music is almost unpleasant. And that can’t be the kind of new ride Sheader intended.

Until 25 September 2021

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Bagdad Café” at the Old Vic

Nobody brings film to the stage like director Emma Rice. Following hits such as Brief Encounter and Romantics Anonymous it’s now the turn of Percy and Eleonore Adlon’s 1987 movie. The story of an unlikely friendship between two women – Brenda and Jasmin, estranged from their partners in the remote titular location – has a quirky appeal. While the adaptation fails to move beyond appealing eccentricity, a drop in standards for Rice is still a show worth seeing.

As a Rice fan, I’d argue the problem lies with the source material. I’m puzzled by the choice. There’s a fairy-tale charm in the story of a German tourist and a hassled coffee shop owner… but little else. The women’s quirks, as well as those of Brenda’s family and clientele, replace plot. Maybe this was the attraction – Bagdad Café is novel and Rice is one of the most original theatre makers around – but, frankly, too little happens.

It is a collection of characters to enjoy. Much is made of former “songbird” Brenda and her current sorry state struggling to run a business. Sandra Marvin takes the part and is believable. But it’s her husband, performed by Le Gateau Chocolat, who complains about how hard she works – it’s not clear why we should share that problem. The show’s heroine Jasmin, who walks out on her husband in a scene with no dialogue, is a touch too mysterious. Patrycja Kujawska portrays the character’s quiet power well as she changes the lives of those she ends up living with. But she encounters oddities rather than odds, as conflict and tension are absent. Even learning magic tricks comes suspiciously easily. With little backstory, secondary characters are pleasant to watch but suffer a similar complaint: there are lovely turns from Gareth Snook and Sam Archer as a couple of misfit hippies, but you can’t help wondering how they ended up in the story and what they are there for.

The music for the show, ably directed by Nadine Lee, consists of too few tunes (the show relies heavily on Bob Telson’s hit, Calling You). And the numbers are truncated. There’s a defence for this – Bagdad Café isn’t trying to be a conventional musical. But the show’s originality ends up frustrating. It’s down to the theatricality of the production to hold our interest. Rice and her cast attempt this admirably. There are lovely touches with puppetry and movement (credit here for John Leader, Sarah Wright and Etta Murfitt) that make for plenty of memorable moments – it’s almost enough.

Bagdad Cafe at the Old Vic
Sandra Marvin and Patrycja Kujawska

A world is vividly created. And even if it puzzles too much to entirely suspend disbelief, it is enchanting. There’s not much to Bagdad Café apart from atmosphere. But what an atmosphere! A finale where Brenda and Jasmine put on a show gave me goosebumps. The show’s feelgood simplicity coalesces to make sure we leave the theatre happy. And an encore, showing an accompanying digital project for the production, further confirms a striving for originality that wins admiration. The conjuring here is more than tricks that Jasmine enjoys on stage, it’s theatrical magic of the kind Rice excels at.

Until 21 August 2021

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Steve Tanner

“Heathers – The Musical” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Like the 1989 film on which it is based, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s musical aims for cult status. Given a brief West End run that is well worth catching, the show can make a claim for that status: the production, directed by Andy Fickman, keeps popping up and fans are as enthusiastic as the energetic performances on offer. 

Heathers has its quirks – not all of them work – but there’s a striving for originality that is admirable. The show enjoys a twisted sensibility that, in truth, has limited shock value. And you can question how the topics of teenage suicide and mass killing are handled. What, no trigger warning? Nonetheless, the show is well above average.

Twists on high-school dramas are as predictable as high-school dramas themselves. But the titular characters here, popular girls who share the same first name, are impressively repulsive. Led by Jodie Steele, who makes her role fool-proof with its brashness, the trio are fun. Our actual heroes are the real psychopaths, with roles that aren’t much more convincing, even if Christina Bennington and Jordan Luke Gage give their very best.

The music is good. This is a fine collection of rock/pop songs on the right side of late 1980s pastiche. If there aren’t enough stand-out numbers, collectively the score and lyrics are impressive. And all the numbers demand powerful vocals provided by everyone on stage. It’s rousing stuff, often funny and occasionally original. The choreography, from Gary Lloyd (also associate director), with mirroring moves to show the Heathers’ influence on others, is also strong. The production is almost entertaining enough to ignore what is actually going on.

Lauren Ward Heathers The Musical credit Pamela Raith
Lauren Ward

In common with lots of teen dramas, the adults in the piece are awful (even with the excellent Lauren Ward putting in a star turn as a hippy teacher). It might be better to excise them altogether. And while strong female characters are welcome, might balance help? I think every named male character is either a potential rapist, a closeted homosexual or a serial killer!

Following the movie closely makes the plot cumbersome on stage. Murphy and O’Keefe’s tweaks are good – especially having victims appear as ghosts, not least because we get to see more of Steele – but they only add to a plot that starts to become unwieldy. And we do have to address the very serious subject matter. Not because musicals can’t tackle such subjects, or that humour shouldn’t be used to examine them, but because Heathers doesn’t deal with violence well. In a long show, questions of motive and morality are shoehorned in or glossed over. A too speedy resolution and homespun wisdom tacked on don’t do the subject – or the show – justice.

Until 11 September 2021

www.heathermusical.com

Photos by Pamela Raith