Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Deciphering” at the New Diorama Theatre

It’s easy to appreciate that theatre company curious directive’s show is the most technically ambitious staged at this super venue. The New Diorama is tiny and what Zoë Hurwitz’s set achieves is remarkable. Regrettably, for all director Jack Lowe’s efforts at making sure the show actually works, the piece itself achieves little.

Abseiling actors are just the start. With performers above and below a stage full of surprises, as well as projections and headphones to hear the show through, we are taken backwards and forwards through time. The story follows one woman, Elise, at different stages of life and takes us exploring in an Indonesian cave full of prehistoric symbols.

Lowe manages this time travelling well. A clear performance from Stephanie Street anchors the show and there is a particularly challenging role for a child (well done to Asha Sylvestre at the performance I attended). That the personal relations in Elise’s life are slim is a relatively small problem.

What Deciphering does with its ambition – its scope as well as execution – is disappointing. There’s an exploration of creativity and communication (in a classroom as well as a cave). But the thinking is woolly. On top of this, an investigation into time shows us different paths Elise could have taken in life. The ambition to visualize time on stage is impressive. But we end up with Sarita Gabony (our third Elise) dropping down on a rope and asking us what we want to be when we grow up. Identity seems to be all about your job as Elise suggests that instead of being a paleo-archaeologist, different “versions” of herself could be all manner of equally interesting and prestigious professions. Isn’t she lucky.

A very earnest young teacher, which Lewis Mackinnon can do little with but play, well…earnestly, and an irritable academic (great work from Amanda Hadingue) are the professionals who shape Elise’s life. But both characters are forced too close to cliché as they have to help or hinder Elise. There’s a strong sense of wonder when it comes to the symbols in the cave, which I suspect was the inspiration for the show: with Hurwitz’s help, the scene is a highlight. But Deciphering descends into platitudes. The show desperately wants to be profound. Forcing in personal growth for Elise, we conclude with the weak advice that “if you are brave you cannot fail”. I beg to differ.

Until 2 October 2021

www.newdiorama.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.


A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.


Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.


As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.


Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.


Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“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