All posts by Edward Lukes

“Staircase” at the Southwark Playhouse

As an early example of representing homosexuality on stage, Charles Dyer’s 1966 play is noteworthy. The piece had success in the West End and on Broadway, despite censorship.  This revival directed by Tricia Thorns serves as a tribute to the playwright, who died this year, but only manages to confirm the play’s historical interest. 

As a study of Harry and Charlie, two “small time backstreet hairdressers”, together for twenty years, the promise is an insight into lives not usually recounted. And a reminder of crueler times – the men have to hide their relationship and Charlie is in trouble with the law after an impromptu drag performance. The business is in danger too, since Harry has alopecia (although the best barber I ever had was bald). Unfortunately the men’s love-hate relationship has more hate than romance and is difficult to care about.

Even now it’s unusual to see older gay men on stage and the talk of age being a “smelly thing” is thought-provoking. The dialogue is often interesting, especially Harry’s “silver flow of oratory”. The mix of slang and obscure references is stimulating. The convoluted descriptions are articulate, yet I found it hard to decide how funny Staircase is supposed to be. 

There’s plenty of detail in Dyer’s script but the delivery raises questions. Paul Rider, who takes the better written part of Harry, is more confident and entertaining to watch. John Sackville does well with his character’s vanity and a suggestion of serious delusions (are both characters on stage different personas of one man?) but is too fraught and uncomfortable throughout. Dyer’s play on names and the briefest of suicide scenes create confusion. Thorns’ unflinching direction maintains the bickering relentlessly. Despite all the pain and loneliness, and the potentially serious outcomes, the men’s arguments become tiresome quibbles. Staircase never ascends beyond being a dated curiosity.

Until 17 July 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Phil Gammon

“Shedding a Skin” at the Soho Theatre

EM Forster fans, as I am, are sure to adore Amanda Wilkin’s play. The story of Myah’s journey to find herself and a place in her community has a broad appeal reminiscent of Forster’s dictum to “only connect”. Like the novelist Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Wilkin adopts the maxim to our own times and uses it for her purposes. What good company Wilkin keeps.

To be clear, Shedding a Skin had me hooked before the thought of Forster entered my head. Myah is a great creation from the start. As her “triad” of work, love and home collapses – seeing her storm out of a “corporate hell hole” in style, and end her relationship and tenancy – it’s impossible not to feel empathy for her troubles. Especially when all problems are related with a great sense of humour.

Plenty of Myah’s appeal comes from the fantastic performance Wilkin herself gives. Embodying the “bit of a nerd”, who giggles too loudly and overshares, with such charm, her firm comedic skill and strong stage presence hold the attention. This is a relatively long monologue that really speeds by.

Surprisingly, Myah isn’t even the heroine of the show. Her new flat mate, the elderly Mildred, is carefully depicted and becomes a tangible presence. Dealing with a card of “house rules” and plenty of forthright opinions provides laughs. And, as the story unfolds, Mildred is developed marvellously – from a figure that reminds Myah of her childhood into someone who connects her to heritage and community. What could have been just a foil becomes an inspiration.

Further reasons for the success of this Verity Bargate Award-winning script are down to Elayce Ismail’s firm direction – the show’s pace is strong without feeling rushed – and Rosanna Vize’s clever set of blinds and fabrics that are slowly stripped away. Shedding – mostly of expectations it seems – sounds painful, but is made celebratory by the production.

Short voiceovers punctuate Myah’s narrative, retelling instances of resolution and defiance in different parts of the world. Certainly evocative, coming progressively closer geographically to the action on stage, the additions are arguably unnecessary. Myah and the deep truths that Wilkin appreciates are enough for me. The search for connections and empathy between generations, races and sexualities is a stirring endeavour that had me in happy tears by the end of the show.

Until 17 July with a live streamed performance on the 15th July 2021

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” at the Royal Court

The murderous intentions within Jasmine Lee-Jones’ play – back after a sell-out run in 2019 – aren’t really aimed at a particular person. While an heiress invokes the online ire of the character Cleo, the play tackles the subject of racism. Like her creation, it is the playwright’s engagement with social media that makes this award-winning debut original and exciting.

Cleo is joined by her old friend Kara shortly after she sends a first tweet threatening Kylie. They argue, as Cleo descends into a social media storm. Tackling cultural appropriation, capitalism, and queerness – each in relation to race – makes the show an intense 90 minutes. If the women’s relationship feels by turns lost and less interesting than the issues raised, the action is firmly controlled by director Milli Bhatia.

Lee-Jones puts flesh on the bones of Cleo’s academic theories poignantly, and has a go at presenting more than one side of the argument with interjections from Kara. Through strong performances by Tia Bannon and Leanne Henlon, the debates seldom feel forced, indeed they are a great deal of fun. But it is with her language that Lee-Jones thrills: plenty of plays have tried to tackle Twitter, but this script gives the medium a run for its money.

The rhythm in Lee-Jones’ dialogue is impressive enough. And effective: talking of Jenner’s “images of herself and wealth” serves the play’s theme, but it is the neologisms and acronyms that are dazzling – if difficult – making up much of the friends’ conversation and the tweets from others that we hear as well. It can’t just be my own age that makes this tricky to follow. And do the acronyms rise in number as the play goes on? Or at moments of stress? This is a text to be studied, with every word and shorthand phrase demanding attention.

Such innovation ensures incredible respect for Bannon and Henlon’s delivery of lines learned. And personas adopted: both show online reactions with repeated phrases, exaggerated accents and otherworldly movement. The idea of Twitter as an echo chamber comes to life on stage with Rajha Shakiry’s arboreal-inspired design and brilliant work with sound from Elena Peña.

I won’t pretend to have understood every word of Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. But the combination of articulacy and (sometimes literally) nonsense, of the cerebral and the base – an effective summation of online content – is a brilliantly accomplished achievement.

Until 27 July 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Myah Jeffers

“J’ouvert” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Although the Notting Hill carnival has been cancelled for the second year running, theatre-goers can get closer than ever to the spirit of the event with Yasmin Joseph’s play.

Using the specific term to describe the street party element of Carnival, Joseph opens up interesting topics, from cultural history to issues around class, gender, and race. 

It’s not easy to raise so many issues so well. And Joseph doesn’t shy away from controversial tensions within and between groups that show complex legacies and lives. Expertly marshalled by director Rebekah Murrell, we’re given time to consider thoughts so skilfully provoked.

This all sounds serious. And J’ouvert is… As we follow two friends around for the day, there is plenty of menace and pain. Nadine is preparing to compete as a dancer and Jade about to give her first speech as an activist. Joseph balances a concern for heritage, where Nadine communes with the past (scenes that aid the show’s pace), and Jade’s passion for a better future (which ends, sorry for the spoiler, in a barn-storming speech). Both women’s passions add to the tension and, meanwhile, they are pursued by lechers and censorious relatives. But J’ouvert is also very funny.

“Fear and joy”

In the spirit of release that characterises Carnival, plenty of the problems addressed benefit from Joseph’s ability as a comedic writer. There are throwaway observations that have spark and sometimes a spike, and there’s a line in insults that would make many of a stand-up comic envious. Having her cast impersonate men of different ages provides more than one highlight. And with such chances in the script, the cast proves thrilling.

Taking a third character first, Annice Boparai’s Nisha is a fine target for humour. As she campaigns to improve the area (she has badges), to label her as ‘woke’ is easy enough. But both Boparai and Joseph add skilfully to the role, showing us a character who is lost, vulnerable and genuinely well-meaning. It’s a part full of surprises that reflects the play’s combination of troubles and jokes.

There’s no question that, as Nadine and Jade, Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy have the appropriate star quality for these great parts. And these are fantastic performances. But note how cleverly Joseph flips the focus between the two. Is a link to ghosts our focus or a burgeoning political consciousness? Of course, with a play this good it is both.

Originally seen at the Theatre 503, the fear that the show might feel lost on a West End stage must have crossed minds. But that doesn’t happen for a moment. Aided by Zuyane Russell as a DJ, the palpable energy in this production is fantastic. Bearing in mind we only see four performers, dance and personality fill the theatre admirably. J’ouvert is a play to celebrate.

Until 3 July 2021

www.atgtickets.com/shows/jouvert/harold-pinter-theatre

“Lone Flyer” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

The West End’s smallest stage has big plans now that theatres are open again. Jermyn Street Theatre’s ‘Footprints Festival’ has drama, as well as cabaret and poetry, to enjoy in real life or online. As part of the programme, this visiting production from the Watermill Theatre affords a welcome chance for London audiences to see an already well-received show.

Lone Flyer is a fascinating biographical play about an inspirational woman – the aviation pioneer Amy Johnson. An (almost) rags-to-riches story that takes in escape from a small town, a desire for celebrity and independence, plus a tragic end that could easily move you to tears, Johnson’s life had it all and writer Ade Morris crams in the details. But the truly clever idea is that any life story is really about the people someone loves. Bringing out those other lives makes Johnson’s story bigger, more relatable and ultimately more moving.

So, the story is told well – credit to director Lucy Betts as well as Morris. First, Johnson’s childhood is seen in tandem with the trip that ended her life. Then the same fatal journey is paired with her most famous exploit, flying solo to Australia in 1930. It’s a neat device that provides tension throughout – just like that final flight, Amy’s story and success seem continually precarious.

“risks and rewards”

Adding depth to the action, Morris elaborates on the “risks and rewards” of fame and the sexism Johnson had to fight. Throughout, the pilot’s charisma is clear, and it all makes a fantastic role for Hannah Edwards, who holds attention magnetically. Is Johnson’s desire to be independent really a desire to be alone is a fascinating open question that Morris introduces carefully and balances well. If there is a short fall, the “black moods” Johnson suffered from aren’t explored enough – although they provide highlights in the performance. The scene recounting Johnson’s sister’s suicide is a magnificent one for Edwards, but a question about Johnson’s possible manic depression hangs over the show.

Fantastic as Edwards is, the pleasant surprise in Lone Flyer comes with her co-star Benedict Salter. Performing all the other roles, including some female, Salter excels. From Johnson’s father and early first love (a commitment-shy Swiss man), to the engineer who helped her, each role is a gem. And there’s the fascinating relationship with husband Jim Mollison. Is the fellow pilot a “glamourous shadow” or a man who gets as much publicity out of the affair as Johnson does? The marriage could make a play of its own.

Best of all, Salter is essential to the production’s theatricality – sure to be especially appreciated right now. Betts’ work comes into its own as we travel the world and skip back and forth in time with clarity and concision. Full of neat touches, effective lighting and sound (Johanna Town and Justin Teasdale, respectively) – the numerous scenes are so engrossing that the action (I almost made it to the end without a pun) flies by. With just a few props and a lot of imagination, Lone Flyer is the kind of show that makes you happy to be in the theatre.

Until 3 July 2021

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Psychodrama” at Never for Ever

Even dedicated theatre-lovers can surely be forgiven a little monologue fatigue right now. After a long lockdown with lots of solo shows, new productions are, understandably, sparsely populated. But in a crowded field Matt Wilkinson’s piece holds its own, thanks to a wicked sense of humour and star turn from Emily Bruni. With performances postponed four times because of Covid-19, it’s pleasing to note that Psychodrama is worth the wait.

Wilkinson writes in detail about the life of an actress, who works part time in a shop since she has reached “the age the phone stops ringing”. We take a keen look at problems distinct to women in the theatre. During the painful rehearsal of a new show, with a vividly described Dutch director (a good mix of fun and creepy) we see younger, less talented performers preferred.

There are lots of salient points and witty observations. Bruni delivers it all impeccably with the aid of Wilkinson’s direction and a downright cunning restraint that makes sure it’s us and her character against the world… or at least against posh shoppers and Netflix stars.

Along with the pointed comedy, Psychodrama is a thriller with the scenario that the dastardly director, working on a stage “approximation” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, has been murdered (guess where). There might be more tension, despite fine design work from James Turner, Elliot Griggs (lighting) and Gareth Fry (sound), but the craving for details is appropriate for the genre. I’d just like more, please.

A bigger problem is that an examination of our heroine’s mental health feels lost, having suffered from a breakdown and now “on first name terms with losing the plot”. The script raises the question of what “getting better” means, but does not develop the idea. Bruni makes sure we’re interested in the strange mirroring between her character, Hitchcock’s fictional Marion Crane and the original actress, Janet Leigh. But this potentially fascinating triangle is too compacted.

Psychodrama seems to lose confidence and, speeding to a conclusion, wastes its twists. It’s in keeping with Hitchcock’s masterpiece that the narration becomes unexpected. But Wilkinson should be prouder of the ideas he has come up with and make more of them. The script has the wit and Bruni the presence to keep our eyes on stage for longer.

Until 3 July 2021

www.neverforeverkt.com/psychodrama

Photo by The Other Richard

“The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Strong ideas and intriguing verse make the quality of Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s new play easy to spot. Superb direction from Nadia Fall and a stunning performance from Kibong Tanji take the production close to five-star territory.

Tanji plays Femi, a young woman whose twin brother has been murdered in a racist attack. Baruwa-Etti writes viscerally about grief: it takes over the body, becoming something elemental, so big it is related to the celestial. This is powerful writing, but it’s the physicality Tanji brings to the role that is mind blowing. I’d put money on her having trained as a dancer.

The clever move is to relate how grief warps Femi’s mind. A desire for justice becomes consuming and violent fantasies isolate Femi from her friends. Achieving a balance between sympathy for the character and being afraid of her – as well as for her – is skilfully achieved.

a stage spectre to rival the best

Femi’s mental ill-health provides a further character for the play – the ghost of her brother. Here, all involved excel. Tanji depicts her character’s reactions to the ghost and slips effortlessly into embodying him as well. Fall injects fantastic tension, with the help of lighting and sound designers Oliver Fenwick and Tingying Dong respectively. And Baruwa-Etti has created a stage spectre to rival the best.

That Femi is haunted is a smart way to link the twins’ experience of racism, then Femi’s encounter with the criminal justice system, with questions of history. But her brother Sean’s ghost is individual enough to make a powerful drama about characters who are more than symbols for societal woes.  

A benevolent, often calming presence, Sean provides support that leads to tender moments recalling the siblings’ childhood. He has instructions… and they aren’t always what his sister wants to hear. The suggestion that Sean also manipulates adds to his fascination. That her ghostly companion leads to the suggestion of Femi’s salvation is a conclusion that, although arriving abruptly, is inspiring.

Until 20 June 2021

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by The Other Richard

“Walden” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

It’d be lovely to roundly cheer producer Sonia Friedman’s idea of bringing new writing to the stage as the West End reopens. And bravo to director Ian Rickson and the performers of this first show of the ‘Re:Emerge Season’. Unfortunately, Amy Berryman’s debut play only musters polite applause.

Walden is the story of estranged scientist sisters Cassie and Stella, with Stella’s fiancé Bryan thrown in. Cassie’s just got back from the moon – the job Stella wanted – and is visiting the off-grid cabin her sister has retreated to. You can’t call Berryman’s writing bad – it’s studied, careful and competent – but it is predictable, and the story is thin.

One hour, 40 minutes is a long time to spend on sibling rivalry. With the legacy of their father’s space travel adding little, and a former love interest’s sketchy presence, the conflict between the sisters isn’t firmly grounded. It’s Gemma Arterton and Lydia Wilson’s performances as the sisters that hold the interest and bring conviction to the, admittedly detailed, roles. The only tension, as moments of passion and conflict fluctuate, comes with trying to work out which sister is really the coldest or most damaged… or which is the least likeable.

The near-future sci-fi elements of the play aren’t original (the same old climate catastrophe and mass migration) and nothing new is done with them. There’s a conspiracy theory (of course), this time a nasty Nasa. And a debate over moving to the moon feels tacked on – only phraseology is discussed – Cassie doesn’t like the word ‘Colony’.

It is with the character of Bryan – which Fehinti Balogun does a brilliant job with – that the play really shows its flaws. Too obviously introduced to create discussion – he is an ‘Earth Advocate’ opposed to science – it is solely Balogun’s skill that makes watching the character bearable. Only there to serve up questions to the other characters, which are subsequently ignored, Bryan’s own backstory is tacked on in almost insulting fashion. Frustratingly, Bryan should be essential – it is his “life in the woods” that the action is set in. 

Apart from a cabin, there’s little of Henry David Thoreau in the play that takes the name of his famous retreat and book – surely a missed opportunity? There are plenty of influential ideas in Thoreau that could be explored, but any you might think connect with the play are only superficial. At best a brief discussion of Thoreau allows us to make up our mind about Cassie: describing him as a “whiney hipster” could confirm your opinion about her – I was ready to see her off the planet as soon as she said it!

It’s great to see performers on a stage again. And these are great performers, well directed. But it’s frustrating to see so little done with the stage. Waldenv could easily be a radio play. Indeed, a therapy session might be a more accurate description? More than once, characters ask one another “Tell me what you’re feeling”, before we settle down to a description. Too many scenes are duologues with forced debate.

An unresolved ending indicates how lost the script becomes. Despite the performances, it’s hard to care what happens to either sister. There’s a lot of talk of purpose in the play but too few interesting questions are raised or developed, leaving Walden itself with little point.

Until 12 June 2021

www.sfp-reemergeseason.com

“Shaw Shorts” at the Orange Tree Theatre

Two Bernard Shaw tales of topsy-turvy love affairs – smart, insightful and great fun – make a strong beginning for this Richmond venue’s exciting ‘Recovery’ season.

Directed with precision by Shaw expert Paul Miller, both half-hour pieces poke fun at moralising and pretension, taking a dig at contrarian sophisticates (Shaw even puts in a joke at his own expense). The dense dialogue – impeccably delivered – brims with intelligence and wit.

How He Lied To Her Husband

Dorothea-Myer-Bennett-and-Joe-Bolland-in-SHAW-SHORTS-at-the-Orange-Tree-Theatre
Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Joe Bolland

First up is an almost-affair between a married woman and a young poet that has delightful performances from Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Joe Bolland. “Nothing improper” has happened between Mrs Bompas and Mr Apjohn… and, just as it might, they start to argue.

The arrival of the husband provides a neat twist that Jordan Mifsúd (pictured top), who brings considerable swagger to the “prosaic” Mr Bompas, makes the most of. The dynamic between the trio proves unexpected and builds in humour.

To the detriment of the whole, Shaw is preoccupied with the character of Apjohn, the poet, who makes silly claims to live on a “higher plane” and feels “growing pains” at his loss of Romanticism. Despite Miller’s balanced direction and Bolland’s efforts, the satire and the fin-de-siècle trope of anguished artist, hasn’t aged well.

Overruled

Alex-Bhat-and-Hara-Yannas-in-SHAW-SHORTS-at-the-Orange-Tree-Theatre
Alex Bhat and Hara Cannas

Time has been kinder to the second show, which is funnier as a result. Two couples have holiday romances with each other, then accidentally meet, and even attempt to compromise about continuing their flirtations.

The base for the comedy is strong and the women in the piece stronger. With another superb performance (in a more interesting role) Myers-Bennett is joined by Hara Yannas, who differentiates her sweeter character well.

The men – hopeless in different ways – are funnier still as we get to laugh at their neurosis and (always a hoot) a touch of mid-life crisis. Mifsúd lets his hair down (literally) as a lawyer on the loose, while Alex Bhat has a great time with tongue-twisting lines and convoluted arguments.

All the characters give the impression that the risks of an extra marital affair are more exciting than the sex involved itself… a view Shaw mocks as abstract and downright odd. The comedic tension created is, like the claims made about the danger of an affair, “delicious”. And the delivery from all, marked by a justified confidence, is a real treat. 

Enjoy the plays live or take advantage of the OT ON SCREEN programme (planned for the whole season), which broadcasts this show on 3 and 4 June.

Until 26 June 2021

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by The Other Richard

“Amélie” at The Criterion Theatre

This already acclaimed show is enjoying a brief run at one of London’s most beautiful theatres. If you have any doubts about musicals made from movies, then think again. Full of invention and intelligence, Amélie on stage is an escape from the screens we’ve been glued to during lockdown. And I loved it for that alone.

Craig Lucas’ book follows Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s film faithfully. The quirky touches around the life of the titular French waitress we follow are present. But the adaptation is far from slavish: rising to the challenge of bringing suicidal goldfish and travelling garden gnomes to the stage, Michael Fentiman’s direction embraces eccentricity.

Time is taken over Amélie’s childhood (with a “neurotic and an iceberg” for parents), then on her adventures trying to help others. Oh, and Lady Di’s death features too… leading to a number for Elton John just as brilliantly insane as it sounds. Romance comes later, by which time, thanks to Audrey Brisson’s performance in the title role, a crazy courtship with equally oddball Nino is compelling.

Amelie The Musical 2 Pamela Raith Photography

There are appropriately novel touches in the music from Daniel Messé. The songs echo the show’s obsession with the senses – highlighting sight, smell, touch and taste. A number about figs is ripe to join lists of obscure song subjects. The lyrics, by Messé and Nathan Tysen, go a long way in saving the show from too much sentimentality by being unusually morbid…well, it’s a strategy.

Amélie is not perfect. No man could be good enough for our heroine, but the character of Nino really needs some work (far too dull despite Chris Jared’s efforts). Both score and story try hard to be profound. Too hard at times. We can admire getting Zeno’s paradoxes into a musical, but the treatment is heavy handed. The show’s charm and humour are occasionally overplayed. And there’s a big problem with cod accents… understandable, but nonetheless annoying.

Focusing on Amelie’s dreams and imagination is enhanced by a talented cast that brings her world to the stage. The fact that they are all actor-musicians helps – wouldn’t it be great if everyone carried around instruments in real life? But the ensemble is especially graceful: huge credit to movement director Tom Jackson Greaves and a special mention for Kate Robson-Stuart’s performance. An awful lot gets done with pianos and ’cellos, as instruments form a part of Madeleine Girling’s wonderful full-of-surprises set. And the puppetry by Dik Downey is effective. The result is a pleasant irony – while the show talks about how hard times are for dreamers, Amélie brings dreams to the stage with ease.

Until 25 September 2021

www.ameliethemusical.com  

Photos by Pamela Raith