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“Project Dictator” at the New Diorama Theatre

It’s not uncommon for a night at the theatre to combine comedy and tragedy. But Rhum + Clay’s new show moves from laughs to trauma particularly well. So well, it makes Project Dictator difficult to write about. This is one of those shows that knowing too much about might spoil. 

Co-directors and performers Julian Spooner and Matt Wells take their audience on a theatrical journey full of smart surprises. Assisted with direction by Hamish MacDougall, and joined onstage by composer and musician Khaled Kurbeh, Project Dictator has lot to say and plenty of ideas. The show is well executed throughout.


So, what’s going on? We start with a serious play within the play…but performed as a farce. An earnest writer and performer, Jeremy, is an appealing character. There’s the kind of observation – and panegyric to democracy – we expect. Gently mocking, not least artists like themselves, Spooner and Wells show strong comedy skills. A little slapstick goes a long way.

There are more laughs as Jeremy’s single cast member, a supernumerary who finds his voice, takes over. With a power struggle onstage, and calling on the crowd, we get the dictator the title promises. There’s a lot of audience participation here – be prepared to read out loud, dance in your seat and even draw. Jeremy shares my feelings about a fourth wall, and I can’t say I enjoyed all this. But, unlike a lot of audience participation, it is very well done and has a point.

This dictator wants more fun…but very deliberately the show doesn’t become funnier. At what point do you notice a sinister edge? The satire becomes keener, and that participation has an aim – to highlight how easy complicity with a charismatic figure can be.  The tone is more provocative and, had the show ended here, I’d have still been happy.

There’s a final surprise though, where Project Dictator becomes very dark indeed. It turns out what we’ve seen is the performance of comedians who get into trouble with a real regime. Stripped and hooded, after their anarchy, the curtain rises again on a chillingly controlled mime show. Forced to perform, and showing their fear, will a final act of rebellion occur? Now that I won’t reveal.

Until 30 April 2022

Photos by Cesare De Giglio

“Anyone Can Whistle” at the Southwark Playhouse

Not even Stephen Sondheim got it right every time. This 1964 musical has the feel of being penned by a tyro, albeit one who is a genius. While responding to a spirit of counter-culture this revival, directed by Georgie Rankcom, adds confusion.

It’s sacrilegious to criticise Sondheim (and rightly so). Thankfully many faults can be allocated to Arthur Laurents’ book. After all, there are lots of good songs here you will probably recognise.

Anyone Can Whistle has a “rundown town” that manufactures a religious miracle for financial gain. But surprisingly little is done with this idea. At the same time, inmates from a mental asylum called, ahem, the Cookie Jar, run amuck. Surprise! It’s hard to tell who is really insane. There’s an odd lack of satire as the show aims to be a parable and ends up simplistic and tiresome.

The production doesn’t iron out the show’s problems (which would be tough). Attempts at audience participation are ham-fisted and the humour poorly delivered (too many jokes are rushed). There’s no sense of place or time and, with accents all over the place, it seems safe to say that’s deliberate. But the piece is stuck in its period, preoccupied with adolescent rebellion, vague protest and forms of therapy.

Rankcom does a good job working with the traverse stage and Lisa Stevens’ choreography is admirably energetic. But the performances are too broad and there are problems with hearing lines clearly enough. What fun Sondheim’s lyrics possess is often lost.

Alex Young, as the town’s mayor, is a notable exception to all the production’s problems. Like her character, Young is a woman who can handle a crowd, and she adds laughs as well as silliness, which helps in a piece that takes itself surprisingly seriously.

Chrystine Symone

Other performances need more nuance – how much this could be injected despite the script is open to debate. Our hero and heroine, J Bowden Hapgood and Nurse Fay Apple, performed with determination by Jordan Broatch and Chrystine Symone, are flat and their romance unconvincing. Is the somewhat flippant view of mental illness that comes with the show’s simplicity the problem? Even if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it has repercussions for their love affair that Broatch and Symone’s undoubtable charm cannot save. This too-brief encounter comes across as odd. We only learn catchphrases for characters.

The societal critiques in Anyone Can Whistle and the topic of mental health have an appeal. Rankcom and his cast respond with genuine enthusiasm to challenging the mainstream. It’s nice so see this inspiration. But, as the work itself is immature, the production becomes tarnished with the same quality. Enthusing an audience about such a hotchpotch of ideas, while not exactly needing a miracle, turns out to be a leap of faith too far.

Until 7 May 2022

Photos by Danny With A Camera

“Diary of a Somebody” at the Seven Dials Playhouse

Few doubt Joe Orton’s plays are brilliant and important. But to judge from his diaries, which John Lahr uses for this play, he was a pretty awful person. Lahr’s strategy for success, shared in this admirable revival, is to make someone so unpleasant good company – at least for a couple of hours.

George Kemp takes the lead as Orton and has no choice but to carry the show. It’s Orton’s voice, after all – monotonously so – and Kemp manages to bring an impish humour to proceedings. Orton’s self-presentation is so forceful, with so little self-doubt, that the show teeters towards repetition.

To the credit of Lahr (and Orton), there’s no censorship of any kind here – the idea that this is a political or philosophical point is interesting. Orton’s offensive approach to sex tourism isn’t hidden, and his misogyny, racism and arrogance throughout are uncomfortable. How much a wicked sense of humour excuses any of this is up to you.

Almost despite Orton, Diary of a Somebody is really the story of two men. Orton’s partner (and killer) Kenneth Halliwell is awarded a detailed depiction, performed here by Toby Osmond. The play’s emotional moments are effective. Osmond makes sure his character’s struggles with mental health receive more sympathy from the audience than they did from Orton.

George Kemp, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal,Toby Osmond, Jemma Churchill and Jamie Zubairi

The couple are joined by Jemma Churchill, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal and Jamie Zubairi playing all the other characters. Marshalled efficiently by director Nico Rao Pimparé, it is the ensemble that makes the show digestible. Playing Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours is fun for both women. Delivering the brilliant letters Orton wrote under the pseudonym of Edna Welthorpe is a highlight for Churchill, and Zubairi’s Kenneth Williams is a pleasure.

“No fucking asterisks”

Maybe Orton was too honest for his own good (or, at least, for his reputation). He wanted to make sure his work and life contained “no fucking asterisks”. We can all appreciate that. But there’s a strong sense from Lahr’s work that these diaries were always meant to be seen. How suspicious does that make us? Orton never hid them from Halliwell, for a start, and the latter’s sense of being “an extra” in his former protégé’s “epic” became a tragedy for both men. Orton’s tone is often pompous, if fascinating – credit again to Kemp for ensuring a light touch to their delivery. It’s easy to admire this play and production, if not their subject.

Until 3 April 2022

Photos by Brittain Photography

“Pass The Hat” at Stone Nest

Lots of us read -and reflected – more than usual during the Coronavirus lockdown. And many, including Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban of HUNCHtheatre, took that strange time to create (in this case) something very special. The finest of storytelling, full of humour and insight, Pass The Hat proves to be quietly profound.

The book Bennett and his director Shcherban focus on is Farewell Leicester Square, a biography by a famous busker called Harry Hollis. As you might expect, after telling us about himself as an actor, Bennett slips into the character of Hollis and the result is charming. Both Bennett and Hollis have an avuncular charisma and a sweet sense of humour. They share a love of performance for its own sake that is stirring.

The reason for Bennett’s interest in Hollis is a potential family connection. Cue some genealogical detective work (another lockdown pastime). Looking into his grandparents’ lives, there are tangents – some of them dark. It turns out the dates don’t line up. Why the family myth, and why does it matter?

Pass The Hat from HUNCH Theatre credit Valya Korabelnikova

Stories are ways to structure our lives; to “fashion some kind of order”. That this telling can be a beautiful thing, despite shadowy motives, becomes clear with Pass The Hat. Deceptively straightforward, the show uses projections, props and puppets with a light touch. And some of the simplest yet most effective lighting you could wish for. Above all there is Bennett’s performance: using every inch of this intimate space and Vera Reshto’s design, he dances and fights back and forth through history. There’s even a shipwreck!

It is very easy to watch Bennett during this hour-plus piece. That gentle humour, with phone calls interrupting the action, helps. It’s a blissful surprise to realise how caught up in these plays on memory we have been guided through. A moving finale focusing on his grandfather’s dementia enforces how fragile the tales we tell ourselves are. It is compensation that storytelling is so safe in HUNCHtheatre’s capable hands.

Until 8 April 2022

Photos by Valya Korabelnikova

“Tempest” at the Pleasance Theatre

You can see why the Wildcard’s gig-theatre style has its fans. There’s a raw energy to its take on Shakespeare’s Romance that has an anarchic appeal. Director and adapter James Meteyard’s show has lots of ideas, some of them interesting. But there are also lots of problems.

One strength comes with comedy. Shakespeare’s subplot of shipwrecked sailors who join with Caliban to take over the play’s island setting is seldom funny. But with plenty of ad-libs, Eleanor House’s trombone-playing Stephano and Gigi Zahir’s drag queen Trinculo are a lot of fun. Zahir’s “Shutteth the fucketh upeth” is a long way from Shakespeare – but it works. Throwing in a catwalk show is a brilliant twist.

Meanwhile, both the romance and the revenge in The Tempest get lost. Kate Littlewood’s restrained Prospero and Ruby Crepin-Glynne’s savvy Miranda feel like additions rather than central characters. Alexander Bean, so impressive as Caliban, gives a shadowy Duke Alonso. There are too many stumbles from too many of the performers. And of course, when pauses or fumbles start, the atmosphere becomes uncomfortable.

“The isle is full of noises”

The production is notable for boasting Jasmine Morris as its composer. Not so much for the few songs that are included (Meteyard’s lyrics for these are poor) but rather for the soundscape, created with plenty of invention and hugely atmospheric. Yet what should be the show’s triumph also stalls. Whether this is Daniel Balfour’s sound design or technical faults isn’t clear. But the numerous sound effects (which aid Loren O’Dair’s strong performance as Ariel) stop and start abruptly. Audibility is poor.

Meteyard and movement director Jade Hackett work hard to make sure the actor-musicians aren’t stuck with their instruments. There’s a revolving stage and even some aerial acrobatics as well as ambitious lighting from Sherry Coenen to create dynamism. But, yet again, this is uneven. Moments that impress, with a lot of thought behind them, jar with the cast wandering around. The final scenes are far too static.

That the show is too messy for me might be a matter of personal taste. But while only inspired by Shakespeare – with favourite scenes picked out – the truncated approach makes Tempest difficult to follow. The result is a niche affair that shows the original as a piece that needs balance and a play that’s surprisingly easy to wreck.

Until 3 April 2022

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Passion Fruit” at the New Diorama Theatre

Dior Clarke’s semi-autobiographical play is full of affirmation. From the start Clarke tells us his tale is a “self-love story” and characters keep positive in the face of difficult circumstances. The script, written with Stephanie Martin, suffers from self help mantras. But growing up gay on a rough estate, with an abused mother and a brother in trouble, needs determination and bravery – Passion Fruit has plenty of both.

Valid as the project of representation is – bringing new voices to the stage is important – the play isn’t innovative dramatically. The story is simple and much of the subject matter predictable, a lot of it depressingly so. There are no surprises: from a child questioning how men “should” behave, a teenager hiding his sexuality, through to the happy drama school ending. Instead, the show’s strengths come by adding energy to the story.

Hayden Mampasi, Dior Clarke and Charlotte Gosling

First, there is Clarke himself who brings considerable presence and physicality to the stage. Clarke deals subtly with showing a five year old, a school boy and then a petulant teenager: while the character is loud, the depiction is restrained. There are moments when delivery of the lines might be clearer, and direct addresses to the audience occur too often. But the emotions aroused by his family and community are sincere. Strong comic touches are even better.

Clarke is supported by two tremendous performances. Under the tight direction of Melinda Namdar, Charlotte Gosling and Hayden Mampasi perform all the other roles and don’t put a foot wrong. Mampasi is great as an elder brother, then potential boyfriend, as well as having an excellent comic turn as a grandmother. Gosling’s performance as the mother grounds the play from the start. And she impresses as different love interests, both female and male.

Gosling joins Clarke in two of the show’s strongest moments, intimate scenes where sex is depicted with originality. A clubbing scene is another highlight, as Clarke pole dances and explains the importance of wild nights out (albeit with unbelievable sophistication for a 19 year old). The movement in the piece, directed by Kane Husbands with Mateus Daniel, is interesting throughout – fighting or flirting as well as making love, it is the movement in the show that makes it worth watching.

Until 19 March 2020

Photos by Cesare Di Giglio

“Ghosts of the Titanic” at the Park Theatre

It’s impressive to give the story of the world’s most famous shipwreck a new twist. Ron Hutchinson’s solid play speculates that the iceberg didn’t exist and creates a conspiracy theory involving corrupt bankers and businessmen. This is a topical spin on fake news being as old as newspapers themselves but, above all, Ghosts of the Titanic is a cracking thriller.

There are two newshounds here – an ambulance-chasing reporter and his hard-nosed editor. The characters are written well and superbly performed by John Hopkins and Lizzy McInnerny. The cynicism around the making of the news is thought-provoking. Do we really believe the ship’s band played on as death approached?

The power of words and narrative continues as we encounter representatives of the law (well, a Pinkerton private eye) and the medical profession (it’s a good plot twist, so I’ll avoid details). Both characters, performed capably by Sarah Ridgeway and Clive Brill, have comic touches. The humour shows Hutchinson’s skills but, to my taste, dampens tension.

Walking with the dead

Even when there are exaggerated moments, all the characters are entertaining. But, aware that conspiracies can become tiresome, flimsy affairs, Hutchinson makes sure there’s strong emotion powering the show. We follow a grieving heroine – a big part for Genevieve Gaunt, who is seldom off stage and always captures attention. And we get our information from an engineer (an impassioned performance from Fergal McElherron).

Both the grief this tragedy engendered and its status as a defining event in history are handled well. There is a sense of responsibility that saves sensational moments from becoming disrespectful. Gaunt’s sensitive yet determined character wobbles, but is ultimately convincing. The strong plot moves along expertly, with Eoin O’Callaghan’s firm direction showing its strength in making flashback scenes clear. In short, the story is good and the story telling is expert.

Until 2 April 2022

Photos by Piers Foley

“Henry V” at the Donmar Warehouse

A lot of people like to see a star on stage. The attraction for Max Webster’s new production of Shakespeare’s history play is Kit Harington. And the Game of Thrones actor more than earns his presumably vastly reduced wage. Although the production has its moments, Harington is the focus of these in what is an uneven affair that’s too stop-and-start to call it a success.

The large cast takes on multiple roles – which is, normally, sure to impress. And all the more so when the cast is bilingual. For Webster’s version of the play has French characters speaking French. Which makes sense – and makes a point – but creates mixed results.

The scenes in French prove a distraction, as you can’t help wondering if the performer is a native speaker. And when it comes to the different roles, it is all too obvious which one each cast member prefers. Efforts to distinguish the different parts (through accents or body language) are often poor. Kate Duchêne is a notable exception but, overall, there’s a lot of talent for little result.

The language isn’t the only distraction. Andrzej Goulding’s video work is good, but it is too big for the stage. As with Fly Davis’ impressive design, the Donmar’s intimacy is negated. Is a transfer so badly desired? A stage this small feels crowded very easily, yet Webster ignores this. He clearly just wants a bigger space. At one point we even have some marching on the spot… yuk.

Henry V is famous for Shakespeare’s appeals to our imagination. The chorus’ speeches can be inspiring, but here they are lacklustre – Millicent Wong’s delivery is strangely petulant. In attempting moments of realism, the show doesn’t deliver. I don’t think using guns helps, but fight scenes frequently look clumsy. Their direction, by Kate Waters, is, again, really for a different venue.

The production is not a failure. The addition of strong singing is revelatory – there are powerful voices in the cast that gave me goosebumps. It’s a shame that additional music (including, sigh, some Handel) is all over the place. Several scenes have a rawness which is striking (the final scene for Danny Kirrane’s particularly unappealing Pistol is notable).

Above all, Harington’s Harry is a great. The anxiety of ruling and war are etched on this king’s face, and the play between politician and regular guy is riveting. Star appeal saves the show. Which is good, but a little disappointing.

Until 9 April 2022

Photo by Helen Murray

“Bacon” at the Finborough Theatre

Teen dramas are two a penny. Young lives have plenty of problems, ample angst and content that, as the saying goes, is relatable. A playwright needs to up to the ante with this subject matter. And that’s exactly what Sophie Swithinbank does with her powerful and smart script.

Swithinbank takes us on a journey with her characters Mark and Darren that is carefully plotted. The writing, full of strong yet understated imagery, is admirable. But praise does come with spoilers…


I’ll admit I was fooled at first. The odd friendship with clean-cut new boy Mark and his rough friend Darren has charm and effective (if predictable) humour. There are laughs about the aloofness of one and the ignorant swagger of the other. It seems that Swithinbank will treat their very different problems equally.

In a bold move, the tone of Bacon changes quickly. The teens’ burgeoning relationship, told in flashbacks, reveals not the romance Mark wants but trauma. The play becomes disturbing as the relationship becomes emotionally and physically damaging.

Think of a topic that gets a trigger warning and it’s here: suicidal ideation, self-harm, domestic and sexual abuse. Could  some have been avoided and others given more time? But there’s no doubt the cumulative effect is dramatic. Some scenes are difficult to watch as Swithinbank explores how lost and lonely these young men are. It’s depressing how incapable they are of understanding, let alone expressing, feelings.


The production rises to the challenge of Swithinbank’s ambition. Matthew Iliffe’s direction is faultless, flipping between relaxed and tense moments. The design by Natalie Johnson consists of a simple see-saw used to great effect: reminding us we are watching children and reflecting instability. Further praise goes to top-notch lighting and sound design (Ryan Joseph Stafford and Mwen) each used dramatically at key moments without being distracting.

As for the performances, two such intense and dynamic roles are gifts to actors. Both Corey Montague-Sholay and William Robinson are flawless, with have a strong command of the comedy (balancing how the audience might laugh at, rather than with, the characters). Montague-Sholay brings out Mark’s charm, Robinson does the same with Darren’s vulnerability, ensuring remarkable sympathy. When violence arrives, we see the characters sharing shock and pain. Strong performances and a daring play make this an easy one to recommend.

Until 26 March 2022

Photos by Ali Wright

“The Woods” at the Southwark Playhouse

David Mamet’s 1977 play is a romantic drama – just a very fancy one. The script is clever and, in this revival, carefully managed by director Russell Bolam. Allusions are dense, the angst extreme and the sexual politics wretched. If you aren’t a Mamet fan, it can prove tiresome. There’s an easy misanthropy behind the story of a couple falling out of love in a romantic cabin, even if the ideas spouted are highbrow. Is it obvious I’m not sold?

But I’d still recommend this show unreservedly – because the two performances here are fantastic.

Watching Sam Frenchum as Nicholas and Francesca Carpanini as Ruth isn’t pleasant. As a gushing hippy away from the city, she is frankly annoying. Nor does her mistaken idea that ursine partner is “serene” generate much sympathy. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ mansplaining isn’t going to win him many admirers.

The anxiety both characters share is carefully revealed, especially by Frenchum, while Carpanini triumphs in showing Ruth’s desperation. And this is all despite Mamet’s exaggerations… let’s just say that the idea of alienation has a witty twist.

Nobody could make light work of the dark atmosphere Mamet insists on, or the secrets toyed with so effortfully. Nonetheless, these actors – and Bolam – understand the play’s undeniable dynamism. Watching the characters develop and respond to events and revelations is the highlight. Both actors bring intensity to their roles at just the right moments. From who you find more annoying to when you start to get scared, it’s all effective drama and very well performed.

Frencham manages to make the existential speculation here feel as natural as it can, and Carpanini proves an effective foil (it isn’t her fault that her character is only a point of contrast). If The Woods doesn’t move you emotionally, it will still make you think.

A final point of praise seems appropriate and serves as a bit of a spoiler. There is violence in the play and this is brought to the stage with such skill that it should come with a warning (I thought something had gone horribly wrong at one point). It’s overall technically brilliant, undoubtedly impressive, but somehow remains cold.

Until 26 March 2022

Photos by Pamela Raith