Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Inside” from the Orange Tree Theatre

Joining the list of theatres streaming shows live, this offering from Richmond is a high-quality affair. A better-than-most monologue and two two-handers show three different approaches to stories about the Covid-19 lockdown.

Guidesky and I

This smart script by Deborah Bruce is a superb vehicle for the wonderful Samantha Spiro. Acknowledging how difficult this past year has been, the character of Diana is clearing out her deceased mother’s home and trying not to “unravel” at the same time. With some excellent sound design from Anna Clock, an elegant stream-of-consciousness monologue increases in tension throughout its half-hour duration. It’s clever to make Diana an unappealing character who’s short-tempered, stressed and angry (I’m sure we can all recognise some of this in ourselves of late). A problem with an online order, which holds the piece together admirably, proves startlingly effective and surprisingly moving.

Ishia-Bennison-inside-at-the-orange-tree-theatre
Ishia Bennison

When the Daffodils

Joel Tan’s piece is less successful, although there are strong performances from Ishia Bennison and Jessica Murrain, who do well to hide a mawkish tone. Small pleasures and the importance of the caring profession are handled well enough. But Tan elaborates into a poorly sketched dystopian future where a “consensus” has resulted in older people quite literally imprisoned in their homes. It’s easy to see where the thinking comes from and, although there’s surely a debate to be had around such a topic, Tan’s contrived twists add confusion rather than substance.

Inside-from-the-Orange-Tree-Theatre-credit-Ali-Wright
Fisayo Akinade and Sasha Winslow

Ursa Major

For more big topics highlighted by Covid-19, Joe White has a young man with OCD in conversation with a “houseless” woman. If the backstories about Jay and Callisto aren’t quite convincing, the performances from Fisayo Akinade and Sasha Winslow are fine and the characters themselves likeable. White ticks boxes about lockdown life, and he does it well, with an underlying challenge about “normal interaction” that is sharp. Dark energy provides an impressive and effective metaphor throughout and there’s some welcome humour. Moving away from the theme of lockdown to think about distance more generally (well done!), White even provides a sweet ending.

Outside

For all the shows, the direction from Anna Himali Howard deserves high praise, as respecting the tone of each writer benefits the event overall. United by an “underlying feeling of unease”, at times excessively, it’s no surprise that Inside isn’t cheerful. But each playwright has managed to reflect our times. Maybe things will perk up for the second programme (15-17 April) when the theme, like us, moves away from our homes?

Until 27 March 2021

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Ali Wright

“Scaramouche Jones” from stream.theatre

This revival of Justin Butcher’s 2001 play affords the opportunity to see an intriguing and acclaimed text. The “long and weary” life of its centenarian character, a famous clown, of course, recalled on the night of his death at the end of the 20th century, is a compelling yarn that balances elements of the fantastic with weighty concerns. 

Scaramouche’s life is colourful, to say the least. But it is also one filled with trauma and pain. His birth in a brothel in Trinidad, his life as a snake-charming slave and eventual arrival as an immigrant in Britain show us a world where people “mingle and co-mingle”. The globe-trotting Scaramouche covers a lot of ground.

As a consideration of Privilege, with a capital P, the character’s complexion (without make-up) proves a fascinating motif. Jones’ skin helps him in bizarre and unexpected ways. His whiteness saves his life. But note, it is also a mark of pain: frosted tears, white sand and lime from burials all contribute to the “seven white masks” that are the play’s subtitle. Start your debate.

The text is full of vivid images and incredible characters. Scaramouche’s mother, the “charming villains” he meets, and the “beggars and invalids from the four corners of the globe” create the world picture Jones aims for. And such a vast canvas makes the play a tricky one to perform.

To describe this particularly ambitious monologue as competent is not faint praise. Director Ian Talbot’s presentation is clear and concise. But the use of sound effects is overplayed – they add little to the descriptions of events. And both Talbot and his performer, Shane Richie, try to inject energy unnecessarily. Along with lots of accents of, erm, variable success, Richie’s delivery becomes grating, his sense of rhythm too monotonous.

Richie does rise to the play’s central scene. Scaramouche’s time in a concentration camp is a strong moment for all. Nailing the emotion and ambiguity of the play’s hardest, and best, scene becomes an unforgettable moment. It’s as a grave-digger that Scaramouche, incredibly, discovers his ability to make children laugh. His big picture approach ensures these ‘tears of a clown’ are peculiarly original, poignant and thought-provoking. 

Until 11 April 2021

www.stream.theatre

Photo by Bonnie Britain

“The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Henry Filloux-Bennett’s excellent new show is only loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel – and is all the better for that. Yes, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth but, in the neatest of twists, it is only beauty that exists online. With skilful direction from Tamara Harvey, Filloux-Bennett uses the story for a stirring and topical condemnation of social media, focusing on its impact on mental health.

The plotting is strong, with a lot packed into 90 minutes. The conceit of an interview provides an effective framework and a nice cameo for none other than Stephen Fry. As we try to work out what has happened amongst a group of social media stars, there are elements of a mystery thriller, a touch of horror (as we get to see what happens to Dorian) and also romance. 

The love story provides highlights for the show’s titular lead, played by Fionn Whitehead, and gives his co-star Emma McDonald a chance to impress. The pumped-up part for McDonald’s Sybil Vane is excellent, her performance superb. Sybil’s chance for fame leads to heightened emotions McDonald makes deeply moving. And Sybil is just one of the characters, familiar from Wilde’s original, the show does so well with.

A gallery of portraits

Alfred Enoch in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Two older men take Dorian under their wings and Filloux-Bennett makes the most of this fascinating triangle. With Alfred Enoch’s version of Henry Wotton, the idea of an ‘influencer’ is brilliantly elaborated: the role would suit Wilde himself! Aided by cheeky crudity on top of appropriated epigrams, the role confirms Filloux-Bennett is unintimidated by his source. Enoch is sexy, scary and just human enough in the part to make you question Wotton’s every word. Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward uses the tension of his character’s potential homosexuality especially well, and brings a sinister edge to the part.

As for the triangle’s third member, there might be some quibbles about Dorian’s much discussed “dazzling” charm. Might it be a mistake to see the Instagram pictures that create so many followers? How much are we supposed to fall for him? Whitehead does best when confronting Dorian’s mental breakdown, with conspiracy theories that enforce concerns about social media, and a vicious streak that is frightening.

Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joanna Lumley

A further strong move from Filloux-Bennett comes with the character of Lady Narborough, played by Joanna Lumley. For Wilde, a hostess who “treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods”, the character surely becomes Filloux-Bennett’s authorial voice (he deserves one): decrying the “devastating consequences” of going viral and living life online. Lumley brings plenty of nuance to a part that does a lot of explaining – the roles of philanthropist and mother figure to Dorian are both interesting complications.

While this Picture of Dorian Gray may not need to be set so specifically during lockdown, it is a benchmark for its times. Of many excellent shows provided, or even especially produced, to watch at home, this is one of the few that doesn’t make you feel you are missing something and would rather just see it live. The show has collaborative credits – Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley, New Wolsey, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd – are all involved. It’s a welcome irony that, as theatres are starting plans to reopen (fingers crossed), so much has been achieved with their doors closed.

Until 31 March 2021

www.pictureofdoriangray.com  

“Adventurous” from stream.theatre

This debut play from actor Ian Hallard is a charming comedy about love in lockdown. As the middle-aged Rosalind and Richard get to know one another, over Zoom chats and then a drunken dinner IRL, we get to fall in love with two quirky characters who both have enormous appeal. And not just because Rosalind wants to be a National Trust volunteer, which makes her my kind of woman. Hallard has enough observations on our times, on middle-class life and on modern romance to make the show jolly. Awkward chuckles abound – the two never catch each other’s references, and there are laugh-out-loud jokes about aubergines and Arlene Foster (now there’s a combination).

The show is driven by the fantastic chemistry between Hallard and his co-star Sara Crowe. I can pat myself on the back for praising their previous performance in the show Tonight at 8.30. With director Khadifa Wong’s help, the performers’ generosity to one another is clear and aids the show immeasurably. Hallard has written two convincing back stories (that win considerable sympathy) but it is Crowe who gets to surprise. Rosalind is a “late starter” with a little ruthless streak that makes a good twist for such a gentle comedy. Her journey of self-discovery is portrayed with such skill that the play’s tidy ending leaves you wishing her well for adventures that are sure to follow.

Until 28 March 2021

www.stream.theatre

“Treason The Musical” in Concert

Talented performers have been assembled for this concert version of Ricky Allan’s new musical. The singing is fantastic. Every member of the cast gives a great deal to the coherent, Celtic-inspired score, which in itself is pleasant enough. But this brief telling of the story of the Gunpowder Plot – even if there are plans to expand the show – is poor. And the lyrics are terrible.

Allan and Kieran Lynn’s book for the show uses a narrator to take us through the history. It’s a sensible idea, and Debris Stevenson is more than up to the task. But there’s an over-reliance on the role that, admittedly, the concert format doesn’t aid. Too often we end up hearing what we’ve just heard told again through song. So, while we don’t learn much from the show, it also manages to feel repetitive. Yes, we know the story, but the chosen structure hinders drama. It’s a perverse achievement to rob such events of tension.

Even worse, the verse in the narration is blunt and uninspired. And those qualities are carried into the lyrics with painful results.

At times, listening to the lyrics becomes a game of count the cliché. There are paths to choose and things to prove and even a “tangled web” – and that’s just in one song. Sometimes the lyrics are nonsensical: the plotter Robert Catesby reveals his intentions and then asks would-be accomplices not to tell anyone. I started to wonder if Allan only chose the subject because he could think of rhymes for the surname Percy.

A plan to focus on the characters’ emotions – their love lives and religious beliefs – has potential. The marriage of Thomas and Martha Percy leads to wonderful performances from Lucie Jones and Bradley Jaden. And there’s the start of an interesting triangular relationship with arch-plotter Robert Catesby – another excellent performance from Oliver Tompsett.

Musicals can – and do – deal with history in more inventive ways that make past events feel alive and complex. But there’s no nuance in Treason either in presenting the story or in the lyrics. The dire number for King James (that even the performance of Daniel Boys cannot save) presents a complex character as a sex-crazed cut-out. Simplifying complexity is understandable, but Allan makes the past flat.

The concert is presumably designed to pique interest in the project, with the promise of a stage version to follow this year or next. Maybe that’s why we never get to see Guido Fawkes – who we would presume to be the show’s star. Or maybe we never will? That would be the kind of bold move Treason needs. Before that, though, I fear a lot of these lyrics need to end up on a bonfire.

Until 14 March 2021

www.treasonthemusical.com

Photo by Gavin Nugent

March’s New Moon Monologues

I like a new writing night. There’s always a sense of excitement, of experimentation, and the potential for a discovery that theatregoers crave. Even online, these events are an important part of the theatre “eco-system” nurturing talent and providing insight into creativity as well as entertainment. This monthly series – of a high standard – should be in diaries for the rest of lockdown.

There are ten performances on offer, all created by women and mostly performed by the writers themselves. A loose theme – “begin again” – works well, providing structure without constraining. Produced by The Queens of Cups (Grace O’Keefe and Erin Holland) there’s a pleasing variety with plenty of poetry. And it starts with a song! O’Keefe shows how we are all feeling with Everything Sucks – a welcome, jolly, entrée despite current conditions.

Overall, there’s a lot of angst – hardly a surprise given the state of the world – and the big topics covered tick contemporary concerns. Run is a moving, lyrical piece by Emily Hindle about mourning, Seven Years To The Day has Noga Flaishon tackle the complexities of sexual abuse and Bianca Watkins takes on environmental issues in Plan B. Only one piece addresses lockdown specifically – a pleasant surprise – and even better, Lorna O’Dea’s Smile admits the problems we have all faced while managing to be affirming.

At the risk of suggesting some Top of the Pops countdown – there really is something for everyone here – two sketches battled for my number one. Grazed Knees is a short that addresses the life-long experience of a working-class woman and shows considerable wisdom and political bite from its author and performer Elspeth McColl. Jamie Lakritz’s piece, Amissa, benefits from Meryl Griffiths’ performance, capturing an engaging character’s journey of self-discovery later in life: intriguing, moving and well-structured.

Join on Saturday or enjoy the show online for the rest of the month. And get ready for the next series on the theme ‘coming clean’.

www.thequeensofcups.com

“Hymn” from the Almeida Theatre

A sell-out show when streamed live, now available to watch as a recording, Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play is a family drama with shocks and surprises. The story of two brothers, who only met at their father’s funeral, Hymn supplies brilliant highs and lows as we get to know two wonderful characters, masterfully performed.

Adrian Lester plays Gil and Danny Sapani is Benny. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, both performances are marked by a naturalism that is clearly Chakrabarti’s aim. A cautious first meeting, blossoming friendship, and the excitement of starting a business together are all handled without feeling contrived. Seeing the two men get to know one another proves joyous.

The solid script and McIntyre’s light touch mean that ‘issues’ of masculinity, race, age and class never feel forced. Passions and prejudices are part of the everyday lives we see here – providing a sense of modesty to the play’s aims. The piece is more convincing and moving as a result. An extended family, particularly Benny’s mother, as well as the men’s dead father, are all vividly conjured. Even a waitress we never see leaves an impression. It’s all good stuff – easy to recommend.

Danny Sapani in Hymn at the Almeida Theatre

Get ready for a plot spoiler

Because Hymn does not end happily, you might allege that Gil and Benny’s troubles are too well hidden for the dramatic finale – although we know one struggles with alcohol and the other describes himself as “the shooter of blanks” since his businesses always go bust. Plans and lives implode quickly, changing from one scene to another. Clearly that is Chakrabarti’s point – as Benny observes – life is “built on straw”.

It’s to the credit of both play and performers that a death at the end is so upsetting. You really want Gil and Benny’s lives to work out. Having seen how much fun they can have (preparations for a 50th birthday party are a blast) and how much support they can offer one another, things really should be fine. If we feel a little cheated, and want happy endings a little more than usual at the moment, there’s no doubt as to the power of a play that deserves songs of praise.

Until 9 March 2021

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels” from the Finborough Theatre

Presented daily throughout February, Athena Stevens’ play is now available to watch online in its entirety. And watch it you should. What’s exciting about the project are its bite-sized episodes, impossible in a theatre, that are carefully crafted to grow and build. So, watch slowly and take your time.

‘1’ is young woman in a relationship with an older man and ‘A’ is his long-standing female friend. It’s the dynamics between the two women that fascinate. The length of the project means that their relationship can be explored in detail. As thoughts and motives fluctuate, Stevens keeps us questioning her characters’ self-knowledge – what they really think of themselves, of each other and whether they might be complicit in the unhealthy relationships going on here.

This is a triangle of love and friendship where we only hear from two participants. The man they discuss is a vivid character. But Stevens escapes from many clichés by making the show a two-hander. Maybe it’s a little too easy to dislike the guy? And so quickly! But the gaslighting of both women is effectively oppressive and increasingly disturbing. As the show develops, Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is tough going – and that’s a compliment.

Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels
Evelyn Lockley

The meaty roles are gifts to actors, and director Lily McLeish – despite working under lockdown conditions – helps the performers to shine. Stevens takes the role of ‘A’ and gives a suitably confident depiction of a woman who’s easy to admire. Evelyn Lockley gives a powerful performance as ‘1’, skilfully dealing with the questions of fragility and how needy or demanding (those are the accusations!) she might actually be.

The power of the characters possibly detracts from broader issues the show hopes to raise. Might they involve us in particulars a little too much? Stevens spends less time on a drama of a photograph ‘1’ sends of herself topless than might be expected. Questions about how the picture might be abusive are rushed towards the end of the series. But the impact of a man who cannot (will not?) see women as equals is stirring.

Having helped during lockdown with releases of previous shows such as Joan Clegg and It is Easy to be Dead, The Finborough Theatre will release new work online during 2021. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is a strong start. Unlike many a theatre project, it uses the online format and the way we view online to its advantage. Watch in small doses and its efficacy is sure to impress.

Until 1 April 2021

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

“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