Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Buff” at the Vault Festival

There is solid work both behind and on stage with this impressive monologue. The script by Ben Fensome is well crafted and the performance from David O’Reilly is bold and dynamic. Director and dramaturge Scott Le Crass makes the most of both writer and actor with a sympathetic and intelligent approach to their talents.

Buff starts as a comedy – quite a light one, even if the character tells us he gets “crude when I’m nervous”. The jokes are sound and O’Reilly clearly has a gift for getting laughs. His role is amiable and irrepressible, despite being dumped by a long-term love and facing fat-shaming from potential partners. A GSOH doesn’t seem to mean much on dating apps. Best of all, his job as a primary school teacher leads to lovely Joyce Grenfell moments.

The real skill comes with changing the tone of the piece to become sad and serious. Fensome gets to show his ability to address issues around the impact of prejudice. Other characters – a flatmate, that ex and a sister – are admirably vivid as they take the brunt of our hero becoming, well, not very nice. Bravely, those depressing dates aren’t played for laughs (that must have been tempting) and with some effective, if simple, ironies we see that superficiality isn’t the preserve of those who go to the gym.

Le Crass handles the alteration in tone expertly, emphasising the show’s careful structure and making the humour sharp. Even those moments in a classroom end up with bite. It all makes great material for O’Reilly, who gives a real star turn. While we never lose sympathy, there are moving moments when we see how unreasonable a character we once liked has become. Buff is highly polished and a credit to all.

Until 19 February 2023

www.vaultfestival.com

“Walking Cats” at the Vault Festival

Zhaolin Zhou’s one-man show is adorable. Although tackling serious subjects, including the homesickness experienced by migrants and mental health issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 lockdown, there’s so much charm here you leave this show with a warm glow.

Walking Cats is inventive. Drawings and models, by Rimu Kwok, displayed via a live video feed (the closest thing I’ve seen is a company called The Paper Cinema) make the creativity behind the show clear. The pictures on cards are arranged and replaced with mesmerising care that builds a sense of delight. There are technical hitches – we are told the show is “messy” – but any drawbacks are handled with endearing appeal.

A kind of magic comes from how personal the show feels, and Zhaolin Zhou’s performance is the key. From greeting the audience as they arrive to some lovely adlibs he is, mostly, enjoying himself. The audience are on his side. And it’s nice to be reminded of how important being polite can prove! Any mistakes or difficulties become engaging. Moments talking about his mother are clearly difficult, but the sincerity on the stage is powerful.

As for the story itself…it is understandably slight. While this lockdown was clearly more creative, as well as more difficult, than most, we all remember how boring that time was. At first, it’s about walks around Kilburn. Then, as agoraphobia sets in, there’s a lot about recreating recipes from back home. It is mundane (supermarket shopping plays a big part), but the detail is evocative and the drawings a treat.

The minutiae become fantastical as memory and imagination interact. Sound and music (strong work from Tingying Dong) as well as descriptions of food vividly conjure Zhaolin Zhou’s home. The conceit of a toy cat as a proxy is a final whimsy to praise. The show becomes so quirky you can’t quite believe what you’re watching – like someone remembering daydreams they had – and this is a stroll down a memory lane that is worth taking.

Until 5 February 2023

www.vaultfestival.com

“Othello” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Frantic Assembly’s inimitable style gets great results in their acclaimed version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Director Scott Graham’s production manages to please those who love the text and those new to it. A brisk, clear edit makes the play approachable, while the company’s dedication to physical theatre offers insight for those who have seen the play many times.

Famous moments are, mostly, present and correct. Omissions are interesting (Othello’s fit doesn’t happen) while the military setting is loosely applied. But themes of jealousy and revenge are presented with startling clarity. The brisk action creates momentum, while the poetry is still delivered with satisfying technique.

Michael-Akinsulire-in-Frantic-Assemblys-Othello-Photo-Tristram-Kenton
Michael Akinsulire

Michael Akinsulire takes the title role and gives a magnetic performance with plenty of threat that is careful to preserve the character’s intelligence. You believe Othello is a good leader and strategist despite the way he is manipulated. Akinsulire’s is a generous performance that benefits from the show highlighting other roles to great effect.

The three female roles of Bianca, Emilia and Desdemona are strengthened by strong performances from Hannah Sinclair Robinson, Kirsty Stuart and Chanel Waddock. Desdemona’s final scenes are distressing to watch but it seems preferable that all three women put up a fight (quite literally in Waddock’s case). Graham’s detailed work with Joe Layton’s laddish Iago is insightful – there’s less sense than usual that he enjoys his plotting, which makes him all the more frightening. As for the dupes Iago uses: Felipe Pacheco’s Rogrigo adds humour while Tom Gill’s scene as the drunken Cassio is brilliant.

Frantic-Assemblys-Othello-Photo-Tristram-Kenton

The key to the success of Gill’s tricky Act Two Scene Three is movement. It isn’t just that the extended acrobatic dancing makes more sense of his inebriation than a glass or two of wine – who wouldn’t get dizzy – the machismo enacted creates the air of intoxication. The technique works superbly in scenes of violence as performers pose aggressively or weave around and over each other. And the choreography is also excellent for scenes of romance – this Othello is sexy.

For all this praise for those working hard on stage, the star of the show might be designer Laura Hopkins. Setting nearly all the action in a bar (you can almost feel the sticky floor) leads to the production’s memorable pool table, more leapt on and over than played upon. The walls, which concertina in and out, creating corners perfect for plotters, are used to fantastic effect. The combination of style with substance makes this production a winner.

Until 11 February 2023

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Heroes” at the Vault Festival

Unusually for a fringe production, Chakira Alin’s play has the large number of ten performers. A slice-of-life East End drama, with high stakes and plenty of important topics, the play overreaches itself. But the ambition is exciting, and Heroes is undoubtably entertaining.

While the plot might be suited to a soap opera the play tries hard to be profound. There’s a lot of quick judgements and homespun wisdom, which makes some of the dialogue clunky and, occasionally, pushes credibility. But the young characters are heartfelt, earnest and anxious (which seems on trend) and carry the show.

The football-mad friends from an estate (they have plenty of problems as well as aspirations) are an appealing set. The roles are established with skill and hold interest. Best mates Sol and Jonno makes good parts for Jacob Benhayoun and Reuben Rogers who are impressive. and there are charismatic performances from Tirza Sey and Xander Pang. Older characters are less successful, in particular a poetic eccentric called The Wizard, whose role is baffling.

There are problems with the production, most of which (particularly the abrupt lighting cues) would surely settle given a longer run. Director Dixie McDevitt might focus on group scenes to avoid the feeling of characters waiting patiently for the next person to speak. And while this space at the festival is especially demanding (it’s actually just horrible), several performers speak too quietly too often. Also, some more confident delivery would bring out the script’s humour.

The strongest scenes show Alin’s originality. A focus on the theme of fatherhood is a highlight. The articulate youngsters present a version of masculinity that isn’t toxic… that makes a change. This isn’t a quest for role models (interesting in itself) – fathers are “dead, disinterested or detained” – but for a better life.

The youthful autarky makes the ending jar. The conclusion involves knife crime. That this is unexpected is an important point. Things seem to be going well until a devastating violent moment. It’s undoubtedly an important topic, and Alin is bold to tackle it. But events occur to far into the play and a rushed conclusion doesn’t do justice to the hard work or talent here.

Until 27 January 2023

www.vaultfestival.com

“Bloody Mary: Live!” at the Vault Festival

After a valiant effort to get back to normal last year, London’s biggest theatre extravaganza has finally returned, and I am very excited. Never mind the smell of the greasepaint, it’s street artists’ aerosol spray at the Leake Street Arches that herald a two-month long programme of exciting and varied events.

First up is a one-woman show, written and performed by Olivia Miller. And very good it is too. Ostensibly a stand-up comedy act, with Mary Tudor presented as an angsty teenager, there are smart ideas and the performance is strong. We know these re-evaluations of history are clever as well as fun… but Mary warns us that she isn’t a fan of the musical Six. Is it, after all, full of her wicked stepmothers!

There is a lot of audience participation in Bloody Mary: Live! The venue suits it and Olivia Munk’s direction makes the most of this. I’m not a fan but, even objectively, there’s too much “raise your hand if…”, as the technique is used to structure the show. That said, Miller deals with the audience superbly. You do know where a lot of the jokes are going to end (not just because of history) but they are always well delivered.

The highlight of all the participation is very clever indeed. It involves volunteers doing nothing – just like the powerful men who could have helped Mary and her mother. The scene has real bite as we get to see the character as a frightened young girl. Read as a conceit that the comedy show is therapy for Mary, formats slip and trauma start to feel real.

Miller has done her homework and wants to present complexity. As well as tackling that bloody reputation, there’s a feminist perspective, highlighting that Mary’s romantic life was not her own and bringing out lots details that kids would call icky. A nice balance is provided by an infatuation with her childhood tutor.

When it comes to that nickname, the persecution of Protestants shows how damaged Mary was. The line between teenage dirtbag and young psychopath blurs to dramatic effect. Laughs stop and start suddenly. Miller manages to create a chill in the air and that is to her credit.

Until 29 January 2023

www.vaultfestival.com

Photo by Graeme Braidwood

“Hamlet” at the Southwark Playhouse

Ricky Dukes and the excellent Lazarus Theatre Company have taken inspiration for their new Shakespearean adaptation from work with acting students. The much-edited play (95 minutes long) is seen only from the perspective of younger characters. The result is surprising, shocking and exciting.

Elsinore becomes a mix of rehearsal room and therapy session. Sorcha Corcoran’s design is constantly rewarding. Alongside Stuart Glover’s lighting, the set is the key to investing such a well-known play with a fresh feel. Given the stripped-back props, and costumes that are sports gear or made of paper, the imagery is fantastic. Lazarus has a knack of creating scenes that burn themselves into the memory. As for including incense, I want some in every production of Hamlet from now on, please.

Remember, the ‘adults’ don’t appear in the flesh. While roles that are of indeterminate age are included (leading to a lovely performance from Kalifa Taylor as one of the players), authority figures are a disembodied voice from above. It’s creepy. Having Micha Colombo issuing sinister instructions and doing such a great job as both Claudius and Gertrude adds a dystopian atmosphere that’s in keeping with Jovana Backovic’s strong sound design.

So, what does this focus result in? The clear generational divide in the source material is highlighted. You need to know the idea and the play well before you go, something I’d normally criticise. But it is evident that the kids are not all right. Mental health – in particular suicide – is the main concern. This might be predictable, but you can’t say it isn’t present in the original. An effort is made to highlight all nine cast members in turn – we sense each deliberating over every action. You are left wanting more (from Alex Zur’s beautifully voiced Horatio, for instance), but the ensemble-led approach brings many thought-provoking moments.

Michael-Hawkey-as-Hamlet-with-Yorick-credit-Charles-Flint.
Michael Hawkey

Appropriately, Michael Hawkey, who takes the title role, embodies the production’s fresh approach and gives a remarkable professional debut. An angry young man who is also petulant, Hawkey’s delivery of the lines is confident and fluid. As a strong foil. Lexine Lee’s restrained Ophelia (I’ll admit this is to my taste) grounds the show. Director Dukes has firm ideas about her death that add to the production’s determined, confrontational approach.

This is radical stuff and, of course, it doesn’t all work. The Mousetrap scene tries too hard to inject humour (although Juan Hernandez and Kiera Murray do a brilliant job). I’m not sure why Yorick’s skull is taken from a fridge? To fit with the clinical feel? The duel is disappointing. Maybe Hamlet’s final action is a touch too far? And it’s a puzzle why Fortinbras isn’t mentioned. But the show raises questions in a prodigious fashion.

It turns out that the “safe space” promised is not delivered. This is Hamlet on a loop – like the circle performers sit in, we can go around again. It’s a chilling nod to the play’s versatility and reinvention. That Lazarus has given us a Hamlet unlike any other is an achievement. That the piece raises so many questions about the play and playmaking itself is astounding.

Until 4 February 2023

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Charles Flint

George Takei’s “Allegiance” at the Charing Cross Theatre 

The legendary George Takei is the star behind this musical and, like many of the cast, he is well worth seeing. The show is inspired by his early life – interned by the US government after Pearl Harbour – and has an important message. The history is interesting but, good intentions aside, attempts to be inspirational are effortful. 

The book, by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, is efficient. The family dynamics are depicted well, with three generations of men making good roles for Takei, Masashi Fujimoto and Telly Leung. And there’s an impressive part for Aynrand Ferrer as the only woman in the family. The story is good. The politics is well handled, too, focusing on the oath of allegiance Japanese Americans were asked to swear. The rifts this caused in their community are presented with clarity and passion. 

Telly-Leung-in-Allegiance-Photo-Danny-Kaan
Telly Leung

There’s a big ‘but’, though. Those efforts to inspire are hard work. Kuo’s music could be bolder and his lyrics really plod. There’s a sense that most of the words sung are capitalised, and repetition is presented as if it were an argument. It’s a matter of diminishing returns; lighter moments with perkier numbers and a sweet, if doomed, romance (Megan Gardiner does well here) adding much needed humour are better. A couple of satirical numbers are highlights and give Patrick Munday and Iverson Yabut a chance in the spotlight. But Allegiance wants to be serious, as its subject is, and it wants this very badly. Sentimentality overpowers the dilemma and the show’s sincerity becomes a liability. 

The show is saved by a good production and strong performances. Tara Overfield Wilkinson’s direction and choreography are nimble, while the action is swift and, again, clear. There are plenty of neat touches to movement and Nic Farman’s lighting design is well used. Speed goes some way to distract from earnest moments, but the score insists on big numbers and Wilkinson has to give them time. 

There are no quibbles about the lead actors. We know that 85-year-old Takei has charm – it’s a pleasure to see him on stage – but he also brings a good deal of emotion to his final scene. If the concluding offering of hope seems brief, considering the trauma on stage, there are further fine performances to enjoy. The leads, Leung and Ferrer, breathe life into sluggish lines with great skill. Both are superb, brimming with confidence and sounding great.

Until 8 April 2023

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton &  Danny Kaan

“The Masks of Aphra Behn” at the White Bear Theatre

Claire Louise Amias’ one-woman show about Restoration writer Aphra Behn is a careful mix of period drama and biography. The trick with plays that look at playwrights is to decide how to balance education with entertainment – and Amias tackles her task with determination.

There is a lot of history… but it’s all about Behn. The show is easy on the broader context, so it doesn’t really matter how much you already know. And filling in details is done with humour – a reference to “my friend Nell Gwyn” made me laugh. And apart from writing plays and poetry, Behn had a fascinating life as a spy, which Amiens speculates on brilliantly.

From her early youth and then as a wit in Charles II’s court, Behn takes us on her adventures in Suriname, Antwerp and Venice. It’s all exciting stuff with considerable peril involved – quite simply, a great story. Imagining how a larger cast could work is not a distraction, as Amias takes on extra roles very well, vividly depicting the rogues and plotters Behn meets along the way.

The plot is so strong that it might be said to be a little overpowering. There isn’t much room for how Behn’s life and work interact – apart from her need for money. This is a pressing concern expressed in detail and used for dramatic purposes, but it is hardly a revelation. The masks in the title only play a part at the end, leading to a rushed conclusion. The idea could have added more weight to the show.

Still, Amias gets to show off her acting skills superbly and does justice to a fascinating figure. And she interacts well with her audience: we are the “witty few” at the theatre to see a production of her play The Rover. But, due to the ‘indisposition’ of an actor, we are offered Behn’s story instead – ”for one night only”, of course. She’ll do anything but offer a refund! The atmosphere is intimate, relaxed, and fun, despite Behn’s trials.

Direction from Pradeep Jey helps. The play is understandably static, but there’s plenty of energy and the time flies by. Behn loves scandal and Amias’ eyes light up at gossip. Any danger is balanced with a dry edge (especially when it comes to her mother), which leads to plenty of laughs. It’s all out for entertainment. As such, the show is a success – and deserves the kind of big box office that would have delighted its subject.

Until 13 January 2023 at The White Bear, then visiting The Space, Docklands (17 & 18 February) and The Brook Theatre, Chatham (22 February)

www.amonkeywithcymbols.co.uk

Photo by Greg Goodale

“Six” at the Vaudeville Theatre

A theatrical phenomenon and worldwide hit, this musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss goes from strength to strength. OK, I didn’t see the premiere at the Edinburgh Festival, but I did rave about its take on history and its excellent songs as soon as it got to London. Now, new cast members take on the crowns of Henry VIII’s wives to tell their story in inimitable style.

The show uses our knowledge that the queens were variously divorced and beheaded or died, but imagines them reunited as a pop group. How’s that for an excuse for great songs and a fantastic atmosphere! With modern sensibilities and humour (the lyrics and script are very funny) a mock competition sets the queens against one another.

It isn’t really a contest – that turns out to be an important point. And one of the show’s many joys is to see the ensemble work so well together while pretending to pit themselves against each other. This six are a great group – sharing emotion and, above all, fun. Despite them working in harmony musically, we still get six distinct characters, which is also important: Six is about the women rather than the man they were married to.

In chronological order, there is a lot of praise to bestow. Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky plays the first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and sounds amazing. Baylie Carson takes the part of Anne Boleyn and proves to be the show’s clown, getting a laugh with every line. There’s Jane Seymour’s ballad next, belted out by Claudia Kariukias in fine style. Dionne Ward-Anderson is Anna of Cleves – a commanding role that whips up the crowd. Koko Basigara as Katherine Howard has (arguably) the best number, ‘All You Wanna Do’, which showcases Marlow and Moss’s talents superbly. Finally, Roxanne Couch’s Catherine Parr guides much of the action and sounds superb.

There can be no higher praise than to say this cast does Six justice – the show really is that good. While the direction from Moss and Jamie Armitage is robust, and the choreography from Carrie-Anne Ingrouille strong, the performers bring high energy and strong comedy skills that prove a clear appreciation of the show’s intelligent humour. Six is my go-to recommendation not just for those who love musicals but anyone who likes a good show. Long may these queens reign on the Strand.

Until 29 October 2023

www.sixthemusical.com

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Salt-Water Moon” at the Finborough Theatre

Along with its reputation for revivals, Neil McPherson’s west London venue has a knack for delivering great writing, often from abroad. Any play put on here is a safe bet and this UK première from Canadian writer David French is a great start to 2023.

A sophisticated script underlies the simple romance in Salt-Water Moon. Returning to his home in Newfoundland after a year away, the prodigal Jacob aims to win back his sweetheart, Mary, only a month before her wedding.

The characters drive the drama. Is Mary really as cold and angry as she seems? Bryony Miller’s excellent performance in the role shows the character’s “steel and fire”. And is Jacob genuine or just a “schemer”? Joseph Potter brings charm to the role but preserves a suspicion about the “brazen” Jacob that slowly melts away.

As the couple awaits the return of Mary’s fiancé (a vivid character, despite never setting foot on stage), French gives us far more than the suggested scenario of “a wolf and a lamb”, making this a romance we want to be rekindled. As the odds against the couple mount, so does the audience’s emotional involvement.

Motives for both characters are carefully revealed as they journey towards the truth so that the play has suspense despite a lack of action. Peter Kavanagh’s impeccable direction is suitably restrained and the minimal yet stylish set by Mim Houghton is similarly appropriate.

It is the confidence in French’s writing that stands out. Many a historical drama could benefit from such a sure hand – one that doesn’t feel the need for extraneous detail. Likewise, the sense of a real community – still dealing with the aftermath of World War I and full of inequality – shows us the lived experience of its characters with no sniff of a history lesson. This is impressive writing: Salt-Water Moon is a quality show through and through with a strong script skilfully produced.

Until 28 January 2023

www.finboroughtheatre.com

Photo by Lucy Hayes