Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Re-Member Me” at the Hampstead Theatre

Lip-syncing to Hamlet surely counts as one of those has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed ideas. Creator and performer Dickie Beau brings such skill to miming the words of others he might change your opinion about lip-syncing itself. But Re-Member Me has far more to recommend it – the show is original, startling and stirring theatre.

Beau uses recordings of previous performances as well as interviews with those who have worked on productions of Hamlet (big names include Ian McKellen and Richard Eyre). All are expertly edited, and the generous contributors come off very well. What they have to say is interesting and smart, but it is also funny and humble. Beau is generous, too. He even allows the opinions of a critic – what a wonderful, clever man he is!

And what does Beau do with this impressive material? Through an intelligent engagement with Shakespeare’s play, the concern here is mortality. Much of the piece focuses on Ian Charleson, the actor who performed in Eyre’s Hamlet just before he died. And John Gielgud features, with recordings from late in life. Re-Member Me can be thought of as a tribute show.

The action is paced perfectly by director Jan Willem Van Den Bosch. There’s a lot going on, but big ideas are given time to breath. One concern might be that the audience needs to know a lot about Hamlet and its performance history to enjoy all this. But, while appealing to lovers of the theatre, the craziness of the idea itself – that lip-synching – proves a great strength.

The technique adds humour (its mostly used for comedy, after all), which Beau embraces with mischievous touches. There’s a fantastic thrill from not knowing what’s going to happen next, especially when it comes to the songs woven in. Meanwhile, cleverly using mannequins point us towards the uncanny. The dummies are redressed and reassembled with an obsessive intensity. By mouthing the words of others, some of them deceased, Re-Member Me is a reminder of the impermanence that theatre and life share. The results are moving and profound.

Until 17 June 2023

Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Brokeback Mountain” at the Soho Place Theatre

Annie Proulx’s short story is about atmosphere rather than action. The troubled love affair between cowboys Ennis and Jack is a powerful tale of repression and loss, but part of what makes it special is that not that much really happens. Bringing the story to the stage is a tough call that Ashley Robinson’s adaptation and Jonathan Butterell’s direction handle intelligently. It is a shame that the results are mixed.

Butterell has secured fine performances from the show’s exciting casting. Here are two West End stage debuts to take note of. Stars from the States, Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges, are strong as Jack and Ennis respectively. Hedges makes the taciturn Ennis a strong figure whose torment over his sexuality bubbles under the surface. Faist’s Jack is charismatic, full of energy and humour, but the audience can still see his pain. As for that all-important chemistry, Butterell takes advantage of the venue’s intimacy to create quiet, moving moments.

Despite the enjoyable performances, with Faist and Hedges easily holding the stage and showing impressive confidence, the pace overall feels regrettably rushed. A sense of time passing and opportunities lost isn’t conveyed and the show comes close to being cold. Jack’s statement that “we could have had a good life together” comes as something of a shock – it seems we are near the end of the show too soon. The meditative quality of the source material is lost.

There is little sense of menace in the piece. The men’s employer is aware of the affair and simply disapproves, while in the final scene Jack’s mother seems sympathetic. As part of a lack of threat, Jack’s wife is reduced to a slim figure (despite Emily Fairn’s commendable efforts in the role). It becomes hard to remember the risks being run by the couple’s romantic getaways and why the two cannot live together. Meanwhile, there is the device of an ‘older’ Ennis watching the action. It’s not a bad idea, and adds some melancholy moments, but having him continually on stage means that the role blends into the background, despite Paul Hickey’s commitment.

Eddie Reader in Brokeback Mountain
Eddi Reader

Firmer ground come with the show’s most innovative move – the music. Described as a play with songs, rather than a musical, it’s the compositions by Dan Gillespie Sells that add most to seeing the story on stage. Eddi Reader performs with an excellent band – it all sounds wonderful. What we hear, with the aid of Christopher Shutt’s impressive sound design, provides romance, tension, humour and, above all, atmosphere. The pace that the show needs is clearest here – more music might have led to more emotion.

Until 12 August 2023

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Leaves of Glass” at the Park Theatre

This welcome revival, from Lidless Theatre, of Philip Ridley’s 2007 play confirms the author as a consistently brilliant playwright. The subject matter includes child abuse and depression – not easy to watch – but what chills and inspires is how Ridley balances accusations, denials and shifting stories while showing how trauma lives on, affecting lives and shaping futures.

Ridley’s is a harsh look at cruel subjects. A sense of paranoia, woven into every line, reflects how the character Steven’s life falls apart: his wife and mother seem against him, while his troubled younger brother makes cryptic demands about confessing… something. Ridley reveals plot as well as any thriller, and director Max Harrison takes his lead – the show is gripping.

The script boasts vivid images: this is a lucid world of violence, vermin and the unexplained. All the unsettling tropes are given time, as they should be – the language is astonishing. Nonetheless, the play is more of a conventional domestic drama than many Ridley offerings – a family putting on a show is clear. Harrison’s incisive approach is further confirmed with the piece’s black humour when the brothers fight or their mum lays down the law.

All the performers clearly admire the script and share Harrison’s vision. Katie Buchholz highlights the strength of her character, Debbie, who is Steven’s wife, adding to the play’s tension. Kacey Ainworth, as the boys’ mother, has strong comedy skills, while the way she ages from one scene to the next at the end of the play left me awe-struck.

Joseph Potter

Joseph Potter takes the role of younger brother Barry, an alcoholic begging and threatening to unearth a past that has ruined his life, balancing sympathy and threat. As his performance in a previous play, Poltergeist, testifies, Potter is an expert at Ridley. He brings a manic energy that matches the writing marvellously.

Taking the lead is Ned Costello in the hugely demanding role of Steven. Understatement is the key to this magnificent performance – Steven’s cool demeanour can be funny but is the first step in our starting to suspect him. As questions mount, Costello shows cracks. It is remarkable that the character can be both sinister and seem weak. At the play’s powerful conclusion, Costello is deeply disturbing.

While scenes with family members are electric, Ridley is a master of the monologue (you can still check out a lockdown highlight – a whole series of fantastic shorts). Steven’s soliloquies are exquisite, brimming with ideas and originality, balancing simple story telling with complex themes. Showing Ridley’s skills with such steely precision secures a five-star rating: an excellent play and production.

Until 3 June 2023

Photos by Mark Senior

“Glory Ride” at Charing Cross Theatre

An inspirational theme and important story do not automatically make a great musical. Yes, the real-life tale of champion cyclist Gino Bartali, who helped smuggle children out of Italy during World War II, is great. But it is handled so bluntly by father and daughter team Todd and Victoria Buchholz that this show does not impress.

The book manages to be at once too speedy and plodding. Our hero Bartali loses his brother in an accident and wins the Tour de France without breaking a sweat. The show is overwhelmingly, oppressively, earnest – and declamatory (its single attempt at humour is dire). And some of the acting matches… there’s a lot of pointing.

Victoria Buchholz has written a score that isn’t memorable enough and suffers from too many militaristic themes. The lyrics are better, but the idea of adding the odd Italian word is overused.

The production, understandably, struggles. Director Kelly Devine could be more imaginative with the staging. Some of the voices could be stronger. And too many of the accents need pinning down (there are touches of Rada and Russia with these Italians). That the cast is committed and gives the show a good go is faint praise, but sadly the best that can be mustered.

Josh St.Clair and Amy Di Bartolomeo

Although they don’t manage to save the night, there are strong leads, including Josh St. Clair, who gives a passionate performance as Bartali and has a strong voice. But although we spend a lot of time with our hero, the character is flat. The story gives Bartali guilt as a motivation and St. Clair goes with this, but he would clearly be better if he had more to work with. Frustratingly, the fact that Bartoli’s celebrity played a part in his heroics (it gives him relative freedom in lockdown Florence) is mentioned but not used. A musical could be great for exploring this (Andrew Lloyd Webber would love it), but the chance is ignored, and Glory Ride just goes for Bartali’s humility, which ends up making him bland.

As for the love interest, Adriana is a woman defined by the men in her life (naughty). Amy Di Bartolomeo, who takes the role, has the best number and gives the character charisma, but the whole role is another missed opportunity.

Maybe the big problem is a lack of peril? Or the fact that everyone is so sure of their convictions? There’s a lot of talk of souls in the show. The role of Florence’s Cardinal turns into a puzzling mix of both problems – failing to convince that he is under threat while hectoring everyone about what they should do.

Fed Zanni

Gino’s Blackshirt friend Mario (who mentions he is a church orphan far too many times) offers some hope to improve the show. There’s real angst about this “man in the middle” trying to help his friends and do the best for his city, and Fed Zanni is a highlight in the role. It’s a shame Mario is just a sidekick. Determined to make a show about a saint, Glory Ride ends up sinfully uninspiring.

Until 29 July 2023

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Private Lives” at the Donmar Warehouse

For his last season in charge of the venue, director Michael Longhurst presents a radical revival of Noël Coward’s classic play. This Private Lives is exciting and troubled – fitting attributes for Longhurst’s superb time at The Donmar, which has struggled with the problems of Covid-19 and funding.

It is hard not to have expectations about a Noël Coward play – part of the playwright’s genius was to present the seemingly superficial. Longhurst understands this dynamic. His production shows divorcees Elyot and Amanda (reunited while on honeymoon with other people) as far more than frothy.

There are still plenty of laughs in the comedy. But a serious edge comes from Longhurst’s intolerance of Elyot’s domestic violence. The focus comes from the text – Coward is also appalled that Amanda is hit by Elyot – but the action is truly shocking (Kate Waters’ work as fight coordinator is some of the best I’ve seen). And the violence fits with an air of disconnection and desperation that could be described as existential: Amanda talks of her “jagged sophistication”, Elyot says that he is “lost” and troubled by modern life.

Two strong leads – Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling – play an important part in the success of the production. Neither is intimidated by the show’s history. Stirling’s Amanda can hold her own in any situation but is surprisingly vulnerable. Mangan’s performance is a revelation, his Elyot a nasty piece of work, however charming. You can tell how good both performers are when they aren’t speaking that sparkling dialogue. Full of passion and intimacy, this couple can communicate without the words an audience usually goes to a Coward play for.

Running away from their new marriages is surely unforgivable – no matter how dysfunctional and unhappy their rekindled love affair will be. Here, Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda, who take the parts of new spouses Sibyl and Victor, make their smaller roles a big part of the show. There are laughs from how out of their depth both characters are, but the slow realisation of what Elyot and Amanda are really like adds considerable tension.

Might you still feel sorry for Elyot and Amanda? They “pity the philosophers” who want to try and explain their passion. But is there a design for living here? Or are the couple just like children? There’s plenty to suggest infantilism, including temper tantrums that must be tactically controlled. But Longhurst is harsh and has no time for excuses. The violence in the show feeds on itself and brings further shocks with the finale. Complete with discordant strings, a sudden argument between Sibyl and Victor might even end in murder. Not what you expected – and all the better for seeing these lives out in the open.

Until 27 May 2023

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Dancing at Lughnasa” at the National Theatre

Framed around the childhood of a narrator we take to be the playwright, Brian Friel’s award-winning 1990 play is a powerfully subtle piece about memory. We see the frustrated lives of an unmarried mother and her four spinster sisters in 1930s rural Ireland. Beneath mundane details are suggestions of what these women really felt and glimpses of what they wished for.

Running parallel to events, ruminations on recollection itself are exquisitely delivered by Tom Vauhgan-Lawlor, who plays this all-important narrator. It’s clear that this vision of the past is about emotion rather than action. We shouldn’t trust what we see (although note how tempting it is to do so), not because we are being misled but since so much is unknown. The tone is melancholic, despite many moments of affection and joy. 

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

The pace set by director Josie Rourke is appropriately calm. During almost three hours little happens (and ‘big’ events are always off stage). It is the characters who are enthralling with every detail worthy of attention. What we get are snatches remembered from youth – riddles, toys and jokes or arguments that impress themselves on a child – small moments, but vivid.

There are larger themes in Dancing at Lughnasa – big changes in Irish politics and society, with the theme of emigration regularly infringing on life – and Rourke carefully follows Friel’s lead to handle these, mostly, lightly. An exception is Father Jack, a brother who has returned from missionary work having ‘gone native’. The link to the play’s wider pagan themes is stated rather than explored, an unusual misstep, which leaves Ardal O’Hanlon somewhat wasted in the role.

Siobhan McSweeney Ardal OHanlon and Justine Mitchell

The detail in the writing is captured in a set of strong performances with each actor having to portray frustrations felt as well as a sense of opportunities lost. Our narrator’s mother, played by Alison Oliver, is appropriately to the fore. Her siblings – Justine Mitchell, Louisa Harland, and Bláithín Mac Gabhann – are excellent. These are restrained women, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, which makes any escapism potent. Feel free to pick your favourite although it is hard not to highlight Siobhán McSweeney’s comedy skills as the fifth sister. Her character is described as “light-hearted”, but it is the moments when her smile slips that are most powerful.

There is much unsaid in Dancing at Lughnasa, with plenty of the communication being non-verbal. It turns out that the summer of 1936 was the last time that the family were all together (typically, we don’t see this dramatic split). Is it the time or the memory that comes to be described as “alluring and mesmeric”? Either way, those are responses that the audience comes to share with the narrator. As with time lost and memories themselves, the play lingers in the mind.

Until 27 May 2023

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Circle” at the Orange Tree Theatre

If Somerset Maugham’s work as a playwright is unfairly neglected, as director Tom Littler suggests, this revival of a play from 1921 should create a lot of interest. The piece is superbly crafted and hugely entertaining – I haven’t laughed so much in a theatre for a long time. And the production is excellent; overflowing with talent, it is a tribute to the text.

The Circle is a relatively simple drawing room drama, albeit expertly explicated. The scandalous Lady Kitty, who eloped with Lord Hughie, returns home to see her abandoned son, Arnold, but has to deal with her husband Clive hanging around. While aristocratic manners downplay the drama, Maugham ups the stakes with the threat that history is about to repeat itself – Arnold’s wife, Elizabeth, has fallen in love with a house guest called Teddie.

The joy of the play comes with the comedy – the script is full of acerbic observations that are funny while creating tension. And every line is delivered to perfection. Much of the bile comes from the cuckolded Clive and taking the role, Clive Francis hides the character’s spite under an air of sophistication that is a twisted pleasure to behold.

After so many years together, Kitty and Hughie have suffered and squabble – which Clive is “excessively amused” by. The scenes of bickering are performed to perfection by Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost. Asher is brilliant at suggesting wounded vanity while even grunts from Le Provost get giggles. The three bring an air of insouciance to the play that makes The Circle delicious and dramatic.

Admittedly, the fun peaks at the interval. The division between Kitty as a Mother or a Woman is made moving by Asher, her character explains she has attended “a bitter school”, but is overstated. And Maugham takes Arnold’s marriage and the predicament of the younger characters a little more seriously than many, nowadays, might. Clive’s plot to help his son isn’t just silly, it is transparent and it jars with what we have seen of young Elizabeth who is a satisfying character. Still, the will-they-won’t-they run away scenario is smartly handled and ambiguous emotions provide depth.

There’s a second trio of performances to enjoy: Pete Ashmore as Arnold, Olivia Vinall as Elizabeth and Chirag Benedict Lobo as Teddie make a love triangle that is convincing with neat comic touches. It is to Littler’s credit that he respects seriousness in these scenes; surely there was the temptation to play looser and carry on the fun? The central idea, that “the tragedy of love is indifference”, is preserved. If The Circle’s conclusion doesn’t quite convince, the revival itself is excellent. And with performances so accomplished, the show left me wanting more Maugham.

Until 17 June 2023

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“We Need New Names” at Brixton House

The first new names in Mufaro Makubika’s adaptation of NoViolet Bulawayo’s acclaimed novel come with children playing – a group of friends take on different identities for their games. The strong theatrical conceit, performed with conviction, elevates this coming-of-age story set in Zimbabwe. And the play gets better and better.

The cast perform as youths with a girl called Darling and her friends singing, laughing, and bickering. Director Monique Touko keeps the energy high and the mood light. The action is swift with lots of movement. But these games make an audience think too as the kids come across a suicide, chase after aid, or witness violence.

Darling has a sense of hope, depicted brilliantly by Lukwesa Mwamba, that pervades the playground scenes. The prospect of a move to America, for “pizza and Rhianna”, make her different. Mwamba brings her character’s charm, petulance, and courage to the stage and is ably accompanied by five other cast members.

The play packs more punch when we see Darling in Detroit. It may be depressingly predictable that her new life is hard. But Bulawayo brings emotional insight that Makubika makes strong drama from. More music, with original compositions from Tendai Humphrey Sitima, aids immeasurably.

A pincer movement punishes Darling who has trouble fitting in with new friends while becoming estranged from life back home. Relationships with an aunt and a grandfather figure are highlights, enhancing the focus on Darling’s experiences as a woman, bringing strong performances from Princess Khumalo and Kalungi Ssebandeke.

There is pressure for Darling to change her name to something “more” American. The dilemma is heart-wrenching, especially as we watch the predicament dawn on the innocent girl. It is Mwamba’s meticulous performance that grounds the show and makes the production special. Embodying a description of the character as “sunshine”, Mwamba makes the show’s strongest moments.

Until 6 May 2023 at Brixton House and then touring until 10 June 2023

Photo by Robert Day

“Dixon and Daughters” at the National Theatre

Theatre doesn’t get harder hitting than this. Director Róisín McBrinn and playwright Deborah Bruce have worked with the show’s co-producer Clean Break, a women’s theatre company that focuses on the criminal justice system. As a story of how that system impacts on traumatised lives, Dixon and Daughters is intense, provocative and powerful.

The insights gained from in-depth research have led to a script with unquestionable authenticity – which doesn’t make Dixon and Daughters easy to watch. No fewer than six women, five from the same family, show the complexity of abuse. What has happened to them isn’t easy to think about, let alone watch. Bruce charts how past events have shaped lives and endanger futures.

Exploring reactions to abuse proves profound. First, there is denial – we meet Mary, the mother of the family, on her return from prison, incarcerated for perverting the course of justice in a case against her husband. Bríd Brennan’s performance in the role is flawless, with plenty of twisted logic and perverse outrage convincingly depicted. When Mary confronts the truth, Brennan gives a raw performance that is painful to see.

Mary’s daughters Julie and Bernie (further excellent performances from Andrea Lowe and Liz White, respectively) share some of this wish for silence, but their trauma is clearer to see. Julie has become an alcoholic in another abusive relationship. Bernie focuses on her daughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani), who has her own story to tell about the pervasiveness of male power.

Posy Sterling with Bríd Brennan, Liz White and Andrea Lowe in the background

Ella is joined by a woman called Leigh, who Mary met in prison. This extremely damaged character is vividly portrayed by Posy Sterling – she is frightening and heart-rending. And (of course) Leigh is a victim of abuse herself. In this substitute daughter for Mary, Bruce balances frustration and compassion, which serves as an example of how complex the relationships in her play are.

“Make peace or make trouble”

Mary, Julie, and Bernie juggle with the decision to “make peace or make trouble”, with fear leading to damaging decisions. It’s easy to judge, but the drama gives us a chance to stop and question. It is Mary’s stepdaughter, Briana, who has proved the father’s nemesis – her actions led to the court case that imprisoned Mary. Briana’s self-care, mantras and all, make the character jar – at first. But with the aid of Alison Fitzjohn’s charismatic performance, she becomes an inspirational figure who helps herself and others.

There is a danger that each character in the play represents a response to issues, but this potential flaw is avoided through surprising humour and the strong performances. A motif of the house itself being a witness to events fails to convince or make the most of Kat Heath’s ambitious set – the idea feels tacked on. And it must be admitted that, dramatically, there are alarms but no surprises in Dixon and Daughters – the play is depressingly predictable. Nonetheless, by broadening her concern to misogyny Bruce highlights the systemic and cruel nature of male power with incredible authority.

Until 10 June 2023

Photos by Helen Murray

“Sweeney Todd – the Victorian melodrama” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Opera della Luna are keen to stress that their new show is not a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. This demon barber of Fleet Street is based on the original 1847 play, also known as The String of Pearls, and is described as a Victorian melodrama. Given that both the period and the genre are sometimes referred to derogatively, the show could be a tough sell. But the production is funny and well executed and the project interesting.

The script, originally by George Dibdin Pitt, is more than a little silly but it is also exciting – a mix of morality play and thriller. As adaptor and editor, as well as director, Jeff Clarke tackles all his tasks with great skill. And the jobs conflict a little as the action is so crammed it is ludicrous; the coincidences are incredible, never mind adding supernatural touches and a servant pivotal to the plot who never actually appears.

It’s clear treating the show as a comedy is a good idea – and it is well done. If I can’t help wondering what a version of the show that tries to revolt, shock and thrill might be like, the strategy of going for laughs is sound.

The cast know they can’t declaim loudly enough or roll their eyes too often and give admirably energetic performances. Doubling roles is overused for comic effect but adds charm. Matt Kellett and Madeline Robinson embrace their roles as romantic leads. Nick Dwyer has a harder job in the title role and while boos and hisses are encouraged, there were a few too many for my taste. As well as having a fine voice Dwyer makes Todd a smart villain – not mad but motivated by money – and interesting as a result. Stealing the show is another baddie, Paul Featherstone’s Reverend Lupin, who is truly revolting – making your skin crawl while getting a laugh makes for an exceptional performance!

A passionate suspicion of the clergy isn’t the only surprise here – there are also remarkably fearless women, admittedly smaller parts, with Todd’s accomplice Mrs Lovett and a maid both made the most of by Lynsey Docherty. The characters are flat but the cast flesh them out: take the “half-murdered, half-smothered, muffin maker” (what a part) made a satisfying figure with a strong performance from Matthew Siveter.

Despite all this praise, the drama is in danger of dragging at times. The venue itself goes a long way to help the show – the charms of Graces Alley are often a production’s secret weapon – it really is the perfect venue for Sweeney Todd. But it is the music that really makes the night. Appropriate given Opera della Luna’s strengths, the score uses compositions by Michael William Balfe, Julius Benedict and Henry Bishop – all eminent Victorians but now less well known. Skilfully orchestrated by James Widden, the music adds atmosphere, aids the action and comedy, and sounds beautiful. Not Sondheim…but a rarer treat that has appeal.

Until 29 April 2023

Photos by Andy Paradise