Category Archives: Uncategorised

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Stream.Theatre

This ambitious new show makes a valiant effort in a tricky category – the family musical. Inspired, like the Disney film, by Goethe’s poem, we get the famous brooms, brought to the stage with the aid of Maia Kirkman-Richards’ puppetry design. But the show aims to please more than children, unfortunately to its detriment.

Our apprentice is a feisty young woman called Eva, a huge role for Mary Moore, and the sorcerer is her Dad, played by David Thaxton. It’s a good twist to have a “little anarchist” as the star, and her father is a magician far from the usual stereotypes. Both performers have strong voices and acquit themselves well. 

Problems comes with writer Richard Hough’s characterisation. The exploration of the troubled family relationship is predictable and laboured. Eva’s coming-of-age story is poorly handled, her father’s perspective shoe-horned in. The transformation Eva sings about isn’t one I’m sure we need… I quite like her from the start! That said, for a young woman with magical talents who manages to save the world (sorry about the plot spoiler), Eva needs an awful lot of validation. A burgeoning love affair (with a poorly drawn character Yazdan Qafouri tries hard at) further slows things down.

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE
Marc Pickering

On top of this family drama, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is also a climate change parable. The Northern Lights, the source of magical power, are being exploited… with dangerous consequences. The too simple scenario at least gives rise to some unusual villains. Marc Pickering is excellent as factory owner Fabian Lydekker: in a show so lacking in humour, he’s a real highlight. Dawn Hope’s role as mother Lydekker is hampered by the poor comedy, and plot twists that come too late, but is admirably far from cartoonish.

With so much going on, including the neat idea that Eva and her father can hear “the music of the aurora” the score struggles to hold the show together. Ben Morales Frost’s music tries hard; he knows variety is needed but a wish to be epic creeps into most pieces and the result feels self-conscious and generic. The lyrics are better – they scan well. Indeed, it’s only with Eva’s love interest that Hough stumbles.

More than usually, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a show I feel should be judged on stage. It’s clear that Scarlet Wilderink’s work directing the puppets would be better appreciated live. Likewise with the magic tricks and Steven Harris’ choreography, including a very neat treatment of the Northern Lights. And I’d love to know if Pickering’s big number – surely a show-stopper – is the success I’d bet on. Director Charlotte Westenra, whose work is impeccable, has assembled a talented team that could create the atmosphere needed to make the show magical. Although the production and filming are accomplished, I’d like to feel this is a training run for the real thing.

Until 14 March 2021

www.tsamusical.com

Photos by Geraint Lewis

“Typical” from the Soho Theatre

Based on real events, Ryan Calais Cameron’s play about the death of a Black man in police custody is powerful and important. Even the suggestion that such events deserve the show’s title is stirring. As for the work of director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and her star Richard Blackwood – it is exemplary.

The poetry of Typical is key to the show’s success – it sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and received rave reviews on its London transfer. Cameron’s ability with words deserves further antonyms to his play’s title. And Blackwood’s delivery of the script is a revelation – in this specially filmed version, he handles rhythm with at first playfulness and then power. Also excellent is the show’s pacing, which Osei-Kuffour and her camera crew do so well with, ensuring every minute of this hour-long performance is essential.

Time is taken to establish Blackwood’s character. In his engaging performance, we come to know a man who jokes that he is “a hazard”. He’s got bad taste in music and good ideas about the design of a toaster. Appealing and believable, his plans for a night out and learning about his friends and family are endearing.

It doesn’t take long before attempts to have fun go wrong. The fact that there’s no plot spoiler here is depressing… but the drama still works. Indeed, tension mounts as our hero – and that’s the best word – struggles to keep his cool in the face of ‘casual’ racism that becomes violent. It would be good if the woman we meet had more personality, but Cameron makes a point about the sexual stereotypes that surround black men concisely and powerfully.

A subsequent fight and then encounter with the police (all the more frustrating as it takes place in a hospital) brings us to a final third. It’s a section that deserves the trigger warning that comes with the show. It is a further tribute to Blackwood that it is physically uncomfortable to watch. Inspired by events surrounding a former paratrooper who died in 1998, Typical is dedicated to Christopher Alder. This outstanding show serves as a moving tribute to him and the many more men and women who have died in police custody.

www.sohotheatreondemand.com

Photo by Franklyn Rogers

“Grimm Tales for Fragile Times And Broken People” from Creation Theatre

It’s always good to remember how grim the Brothers Grimm tales are. Hosted on Zoom, Creation Theatre’s production highlights how much abuse, trauma (and cannibalism) the stories contain. The result is a mature affair, spooky and scary, that provides a much-needed hour away from mundane life. Strong story-telling and impressive imaginative touches take us to a distinct world with crazed characters “living in exile”. It’s worth a trip.

Several tales – The Juniper Tree, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Godfather Death and The Moon – are interwoven; the technique has pros and cons. Mixing up the stories is engaging (you have to concentrate) but can be confusing at times. A lot is packed into an hour. The advantage is to bring out common themes that provide plenty to think about: families, mortality…and a lot of stealing.

The adaptations, devised with the cast, are full of contemporary touches and colloquialisms; plenty make it clear the show is aimed at grown-ups. Graeme Rose takes the lead, his telling of The Juniper Tree exemplifies the show’s tone. And there are touches of macabre humour that lead to a stand-out performance from Natasha Rickman.

The show is driven by the attempt to create atmosphere and it is successfully creepy. The music, make-up, camera work and costumes are all good. The style becomes something of an obsession. Gari Jones’ direction is extremely determined. If performances suffer as a result – giving us little sense of individuals – escapism is achieved.

Whatever reservations you might have about the format, Creation Theatre make a good claim for becoming experts in our new normal of Digital Theatre. It isn’t fancy technology they can be proud of. While the planning behind the show must be daunting, effectiveness comes from simple camera work and lighting – not special effects. A model town and the use of a tiny origami bird stand out. And the idea of watching the show by candlelight: a nice touch, and it works too.

Until 13 March 2021

www.creationtheatre.co.uk

 

“Outside” from The Space

This initially intriguing show, written and performed by Gabrielle MacPherson, has the scenario of a woman imprisoned at home from a young age being interviewed in a witness questioning room. That you need to know the outline – before watching – is the first of several problems distracting from the talent and ideas on offer.

Revealing the abuse that the character of Willa has suffered is done well – it holds attention. Looking for “clues and evidence” about her life adds an investigative element akin to a thriller that has potential. But the device of Willa being interrogated ends up bizarre: there are several disembodied voices in the production (Willa has improbably recorded people from the age of six) that do little apart from puzzle.

There are too many loose ends in a script hampered by unimaginative descriptions. A little more input from the outside world is needed – even if only showing ineffective social services. More could be made of the father’s occupation as a publisher; that books are the only source of Willa’s knowledge, leading her to create a “fantasy world”, is an interesting idea. And the existence of a brother is mentioned so infrequently it is confusing.

It doesn’t help that Willa is depicted as an “adult idiot”. Maybe it makes sense that, denied socialisation, she has to assert “I am a grown up”. And MacPherson’s performance, aided by director Karis Crimson, is focused and consistent. That the character blames herself for the abuse shows insight. But the delivery becomes annoying. The infantile gestures and relentless breathlessness grates. Attempts at humour are weak. Rather than generate sympathy it makes the show a long 70 minutes.

It’s strange and frustrating that a solution is presented that could make the play more interesting. The sinister side of Willa herself, introduced in a well-played mention of her abusing a kitten, could aid considerably. But the option needs far more to prepare us for the play’s finale. We only get some creepy singing and spooky papier-mâché. Outside adds up to merely odd, when it might be much more.

Until 20 February 2021

www.space.org.uk

“Heads or Tails” from the Living Record Festival

As this exciting online festival draws to a close, I’m pleased I caught this forty minute monologue written and performed by Skye Hallam. Like my other recommendationsHeads or Tails is an easy to praise four star show.

Hallam’s scenario is simple; her character Steph is a young woman visiting earth after her death. The achievement is to tackle the subject matter without being morbid. The jokes are good and the asides to camera sweet. The piece is funny and charming as well as thought-provoking.

As Steph dishes “insider knowledge” about the afterlife, plenty of topics are touched on. Idiosyncratic ideas about God (her name is Helen) and heaven are full of whimsy. Far from coherent, indeed occasionally rambling, I did wonder if Steph could be more confused about her trip back to earth. But Hallam has written a vivid character whose enthusiasm is contagious and performs her creation with endearing style.

Of course, it is what Heads or Tails tells us about life that’s really interesting. Here the effective characterisation works well. Try as we might to avoid that ‘M’(illennial) word, Hallam has sketched an interesting portrait of a demographic. Steph becomes an effective study: full of anxiety, checking her privilege, “outsourcing” her mental health and ever conscious of social media likes. 

Steph’s concerns add an edge to the show that ensures we pause for thought. She may try to reassure us about heaven but how happy was she on earth? There’s clearly plenty of scope for elaboration. It’s easy to see how Hallam could flesh out Steph (her life and her generation) further so that this show’s theatrical afterlife surely has potential.

Until 22 February 2021

www.livingrecord.co.uk

“The Color Purple” from the Curve Leicester

In his introductory remarks to this new online version of a 2019 revival staged with the Birmingham Hippodrome, the Curve’s artistic director Nikolai Foster hopes the production inspires and uplifts the audience. Taking on the task, director Tinuke Craig has achieved exactly that – 100 per cent!

Adapted from Alice Walker’s novel, the Tony award-winning musical sounds fantastic. The singing here is superb, and the score, from Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is interesting and intelligent. Staged in the round, the play’s sensitive filming allows us to take in strong acting and appreciate Mark Smith’s choreography. Craig combines all this to give us “a story to believe in” that won’t leave a dry eye in your house.

The lead characters, with their difficult lives, aren’t easy to portray. Celie’s self-sacrifice, as her children are taken from her and she endures horrific domestic abuse, is hard to watch. But, taking the role, T’Shan Williams expresses pain and anger through song with incredible power – the range in her singing is awe-inspiring. Celie’s whip-wielding husband, Mister, is relentlessly awful, with Ako Mitchell suitably repellent in the role. Casting vanity aside, his redemption is a strong companion to Celie’s. In the scene of Mister’s breakdown, Mitchell has a raw power that is breath-taking.

Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassarate and Landi Oshinowo
Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassarate and Landi Oshinowo

While Celie’s life is full of trauma, there’s humour in The Color Purple. Plenty comes from the gossiping church ladies, a brilliant trio performed by Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassaraté and Landi Oshinowo, who have some of the most adventurous musical moments. And while the story of Celie’s stepson and his wife Sophia is troubled, their relationship contains laughs as well as passion and is portrayed marvellously by Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Karen Mavundukure – I could have watched both all night.

Handling relief in such a powerful story is tricky. But the show needs light… and colour. This is most clearly revealed in the joy that surrounds the character of Shug Avery. With yet another magnificent performance, from Carly Mercedes Dyer, the blues singer who both Mister and Celie fall in love with becomes a sage who holds the key to Celie’s future. Dyer’s portrayal convinces, while her powerful singing commands. And Shug and Celie have one of the best love songs there is.

The finale reveals how well structured the show is, Marsha Norman’s book prepares us for emotion and T’shan Williams excels in delivering it. It is Celie’s journey of self-discovery that makes the show so powerful. I had goosebumps for the last 20 minutes. Acknowledging the beauty in herself and the world, Celie comes to accept her sexuality and her religion in an inspiring and uplifting fashion that, fittingly, ends with a prayer.

Until 7 March 2021

www.curveonline.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Good Grief” from Platform Presents and Finite films

With director Natalie Abrahami on board, Lorien Haynes’ impressive new piece explores the impact of grief. With a naturalistic feel and fantastic attention to detail, there are wonderful performances, so it’s a show to enjoy despite the difficult subject matter. Nikesh Patel plays Adam, who has lost his wife Liv to cancer, and Sian Clifford takes the role of their friend Cat. Both performances complement the strong observations in the script.

Sian Clifford in Good Grief
Sian Clifford

Clifford has called the mix of play and film a “plilm”. I respectfully disagree! It’s filmed in a studio space with the simplest of props, and captions introduce the date and location of each scene, but Abrahami brings the theatre to the screen better than most. There’s an air of a successful workshop, of rehearsals freshly completed and a real feel of the theatre – just what I need right now, thank you.

Good Grief has shortcomings. Firstly, while injecting humour is a fine idea, the jokes aren’t good. The humour isn’t dark or original enough. This becomes an increasing problem as Adam is supposed to be funny. With “always a joke” to hand, some of them need to land.

The friends’ relationship is established and developed well. Aided by the performances, both characters are made appealing and they are recognisable. It’s not much of a plot spoiler…

Nikesh Patel in Good Grief
Nikesh Patel

…to say that Adam and Cat end up sleeping together. But this raises another quibble. Much of the drama comes from how shocking you find the sexual element or how convincing the subsequent guilt is. Maybe a stronger sense of their community might help? Other friends are mentioned and what other people will think is questioned a lot. But the idea of the close-knit, well-to-do clique they belong to is vague. Neither seems to like the other people in their lives, so why should they bother what they think?

Haynes gives due weight to both characters’ mourning – it feels important to note that friends grieve as well as partners. There’s real insight here. Even more impressive, while Good Grief is a tear-jerker it never feels emotionally manipulative. The temptation, for a writer, must be strong. Admittedly, there’s a posthumous letter from Liv that makes a pretty harrowing scene. But Haynes holds firm to give us a candid picture of grief that rings true with its realism, and is both moving and intelligent.

Until 15 April 2021

www.originaltheatreonline.com

“Romeo and Juliet” from Metcalfe Gordon Productions

Top marks for trying. For this filmed theatre production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, director David Evans has used technology to carry on working during Covid-19. Using green screens and CGI sets means protective social distancing is possible for a large cast. Unfortunately, the results are uneven; you end up missing live theatre more than ever.

The technology created a lot of work for editor Ryan Metcalfe – his job is mind-boggling – but the results are disheartening. Performing scenes individually, hugely difficult for actors, creates a stilted feel that is too frequently uncomfortable. The detailed planning for each moment is distractingly transparent.

Jessica Murrain as Prince in Romeo & Juliet credit Ryan Metcalfe Preevue
Jessica Murrain

Evans has a firm hand on direction. There is an air of restraint, with many performances understated, as well as physically static, that presumably aided editing. Sensible and understandable, it provides an interesting take for Vinta Morgan’s Friar and works well for Jessica Murrain’s Prince. But most of the time, the reserve becomes monotonal and sometimes downright odd.

Worse still, at a time when so many miss it, the lack of human contact between performers is painful. Moments when characters would have touched, to emphasise any kind of emotion, stand out. You can sense the instincts of performers have been denied. The production is truly of the moment. But could this lack, somehow, have been used poignantly? Instead, it’s just… sad.

Emily Redpath and Sam Tutty credit Ryan Metcalfe Preevue
Emily Redpath and Sam Tutty

The show is saved by its leads (with a little help from Derek Jacobi reading the prologue) and an impressive score from Sam Dinley. Romeo and Juliet do get to touch. Evans has secured a fine Juliet with Emily Redpath. Any struggles come from the role rather than Redpath – as a young woman Juliet’s life is more controlled, an inadvertent insight into the play. Redpath emphasises youth and makes the part moving.

The show belongs to Sam Tutty’s Romeo. The Dear Evan Hanson star is hugely impressive, bringing a natural feel to the lines, without denying their poetry, and a confidence to the part that is captivating. Frequently, his reactions are more interesting than anything else going on. This experiment with a new kind of theatre did not work for me. But fans of Tutty will not be disappointed. 

Until 27 February 2020

www.romeojuliet2021.com

Photos by credit Ryan Metcalfe / Preevue

“Shook” from Papatango

Samuel Bailey’s play is deservedly multi-award winning. Not only did Bailey receive the prestigious Papatango new writing prize for it but, in 2019, accolades followed a run at Southwark Playhouse. While Covid-19 prevented a scheduled transfer to the West End, thankfully, a filmed production is now available.

Following three young offenders due to become fathers and taking parenting classes in prison, the play is unsurprisingly bleak. Learning the histories of Riyad, Jonjo and Cain is tough. Bailey highlights how abuse, poor education, mental health and gang culture affect them. But none of these topics is imposed on the play. Flowing from the true stories that inspired Bailey, his writing does justice to painful experiences.

That all three characters are resigned to so many of their problems makes Shook strangely disturbing. As with the violence – the “biting, punching, kicking” – that we hear about, and the misogyny and homophobia we listen in to, a lack of life chances is taken for granted. Futures are pretty predetermined. The shocking ignorance that these men suffer from is relentlessly exposed. Riyad’s ambitions are simply a source of pain to him, while Cain’s remark that “nothing good comes of thinking” proves haunting.

Joshua Finan in Shook from Papatango Credit The Other Richard
Joshua Finan

Having so few choices that being institutionalised seems a viable option is truly depressing. Director George Turvey does well with moments of light relief, keeping them firmly under control. Best of all, strong characterisations involve the audience and prevent the piece descending into any kind of ‘poverty porn’. The cast are able to develop their roles magnificently. Josef Davies’ Jonjo is catatonic at first. Josh Finan’s Cain, with his fevered energy, moves from talking too much to asking powerful questions. But the play’s lynchpin is Riyad. Ivan Oyik is fantastic in the role: weaving the exercise of petty power over fellow inmates with underlying insecurities. 

Andrea Hall and Ivan Oyik
Andrea Hall and Ivan Oyik

If there’s a flaw in Shook, it’s that the men’s teacher, Grace, is underwritten. As a result, Andrea Hall’s admirable performance feels wasted. Likewise, I’ve a suspicion that an oft mentioned off-stage character, Jake, is supposed to be more vivid. Or maybe it’s appropriate that those trying to help the men remain shadowy figures? There’s certainly a sense they will achieve little despite their attempts.

An effort that does pay off is to bring the audience increasingly close to the characters. All involved in Shook should be proud of this achievement. Likewise, bringing the characters themselves closer, into a circle of support and friendship, is skilfully managed. It makes learning what each misses all the more moving. Things big and small – from the details of their lives to the lives they are excluded from – run throughout the play, including, most touchingly, wanting a hug. My advice is simple: be sure not to miss Shook.

Until 28 February 2021

www.papatango.co.uk

Photos by The Other Richard

“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” from the London Coliseum

Wildly successful in the US, this musical from Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts is a collection of songs and sketches about romance. There’s lots of dating: drinks, dinners and trips to the movies. The show progresses, if cursorily, to tackle marriage and love in later life. The songs are perky, the humour easy: the show is entertaining if unimpressive.

Off-Broadway origins are easy to spot, with a cast of four taking on a variety of roles. The structure is effective, making you wonder what’s coming next? I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is not boring, but it is predictable. Complaints from and about the opposite sex are tried and tested. Handled lightly enough, there’s little to offend… or surprise.

Efforts to make the show contemporary result in highlights: a number about texting explicit pictures and a mock advertisement with lawyers in bedrooms. But most of the show is mild. One character’s self-description – “awkward and whiney” – could go for nearly all. There’s little variety among those looking for love and, and although there are a couple of tender moments, the pacing is flat.

For this production, director Kirk Jameson uses all manner of camera work to spice up the action and is generally successful. Jameson has a good appreciation of the dry humour and light cynicism here and showcases it admirably. It is the cast that secures success – an exciting and experienced quartet who are a pleasure to watch.

Alice Fearn has two of the best numbers, including a song about being a bridesmaid that she does exceptionally well with. Oliver Tompsett gets to show his comedy skills playing a variety of unsatisfactory male roles. The chemistry between Brenda Edwards and Simon Lipkin is fantastic in more than one number: Sex and the Married Couple might make the whole show worthwhile.

Time and again the performers make good songs sound great and poor jokes passable. They take on a variety of characters and establish each with startling speed. And they sound great. With regards to the cast – I love them, they’re perfect – but maybe change the show?

Until 30 January 2021

www.londocoliseum.org