Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons” at Canning Town Library

With lots of good intentions, playwright James Kenworth has dramatised the life and work of 18th-century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. There are plenty of ideas, and some of them are inspiring, but the result is mixed and overall disappointing.

It’s smart that Fry herself doesn’t make an appearance. Instead, three women that she helped tell her story, taking us quickly to what motivated her. The conditions Fry protested against are powerfully recounted. Religion isn’t shied away from (there are even some stories from the Bible). The aim is didactic. But we only get the bare bones of the story, so you don’t learn that much.

Kenworth is keen to make sure the show connects with a modern audience. Contemporary music is used throughout (which regular theatregoers won’t be surprised about). But the trick is used too often, the selection of music is clumsy and sound quality poor. The snippets of Beyoncé and Madonna are, frankly, embarrassing.

There are some good theatrical moments, often to the credit of director James Martin Charlton. The show’s pace is handled well, moments with mime are a good idea and Hardy Gru’s set is simple and effective. The performance space is handled impressively – and a room off a library/community centre is a tough one to deal with.

Charlton is less successful when it comes to dealing with his performers. The production makes a point of using community members alongside professional actors – a valid exercise. But all the performances are overblown. Anya Williams, Hayley Morson and Ruthie Presh Lane have extra work to do marshalling younger colleagues and they do this well. But they are all playing for a much bigger space.

There’s a powerful scene where the characters we’ve encountered meet their end, and the performances are strong. But this is followed by clumsily tacked-on short speeches about contemporary crimes. In addition, while Kenworth has specialised with work focusing on Newham’s history, there is little sense of locale here. The issues raised and Fry’s legacy are large enough to apply anywhere – but the play still feels too much like a missed opportunity.

Until 27 August 2022

To reserve a free ticket – www.angelprisons.eventbrite.co.uk 

Photo by Adesh Sekhon

“Jack Absolute Flies Again” at the National Theatre

Richard Bean and Oliver Chris are back on the South Bank. Eight years after their smash hit show, One Man, Two Guvnors, the writing team have taken on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy The Rivals. It’s the same smart, irreverent humour with blue tones and knowing touches. And it’s very funny.

Setting the action on the eve of the Battle of Britain (Covid delayed the show, which would have been anniversary-appropriate) works well. There’s plenty of commentary on class – which Bean and Chris love. And the relative liberation women experienced during war time is used neatly. Above all, there are many easy jokes about the period that are mined to the max.

James-Corrigan,-Jordan-Metcalfe,-Laurie-Davidson-and-Akshay-Sharan-in-Jack-Absolute-Flies-Again
James Corrigan, Jordan Metcalfe, Laurie Davidson and Akshay Sharan

Instead of setting the play in Bath, the location is Mrs Malaprop’s country home, requisitioned by the RAF. The pilots seem like a pretty useless bunch of men (what fun) – especially when it comes to romance. A clueless toff, a clever Indian and a crass Australian all get jokes, although they are predictable. It’s appealing performances from James Corrigan, Jordan Metcalfe and Akshay Sharan that make these roles work. The titular lead comes across as bland, despite Laurie Davidson’s efforts. It’s Jack’s father who impresses, with Peter Forbes delivering a rousing performance as the bumptious army major who has some great one-liners. He’s short tempered and misogynistic but he’s a great guy!

The women do much better, even if the big joke is them wanting (or not) to be ‘modern’. Natalie Simpson, as the show’s siren Lydia Languish, deals with some very long lines very well. Sheridan had his heroine obsessed with romance – this time it’s the desire for a socialist future. Lydia’s target is a working-class man from Up North and she wants to open a lemon farming commune in Barnsley.

Bean and Chris’ odder moments are my preference. Even if the jokes don’t get as many laughs, they are original and unexpected. A preoccupation with geography is endearing. A riff on war wounds even manages to be sweet (kind of). The set, designed by Mark Thompson, echoes unusual perspectives with childlike appeal thrown in.

The maid, played by Kerry Howard, has a few too many jokes about the theatre (she’s a self-proclaimed dramatic device) but is excellent. The star of the show is Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop. The updated malapropisms are strong (my favourite was Mexican for lexicon) and they are delivered superbly: Quentin saves some of the weaker (usually bluer) ones with delicious confidence.

Director Emily Burns keeps the action moving swiftly but with a (slightly) calmer, more contemplative undercurrent than that previously mentioned big hit. Bean and Chris cleverly ensure our respect for the pilots increases as the play goes on. And they have a brave ending that earns them respect, too. Jack Absolute Flies Again is more of an ensemble piece (James Cordon was ably supported but was very much the focus). If this show doesn’t sell as many tickets as One Man, Two Guvnors, it still might be a better play.

Until 3 September 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

“The Trials” at the Donmar Warehouse

Dawn King’s climate change play has a strong scenario – the youth of the future hold their parents to account in court for environmental damage. A sci-fi dystopia, the piece is an effective, well-written call to action. It’s big on ideas and, while important for all to see, perfect for a younger demographic. There’s a powerful sense of rage propelling the controlled script: this is theatre for the angry young gen.

Accountability and justice are meaty subjects. As is the impact on the planet of being a carnivore. If some of the future King imagines is far-fetched (it would seem the revolution that has occurred is the first in history to benefit the poor) the balance with what we can all imagine as the shape of things to come is good. It’s easy to guess that folk of the future will be aghast at how we live now.

Overblown touches add to a sense of urgency. But there are hitches. It could be clearer from the start what the outcome of the trials is. Also, for a piece about a generational divide, it would help to know what the date is. Is it Gen Z in the dock? Since King wants to be vague, I’ll avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of drama from a tight, twisty plot. And those accused aren’t just the usual suspects.

The play also manages its young cast superbly. First, three experienced performers – Lucy Cohu, Nigel Lindsay and Sharon Small – punctuate the action. Their speeches, as their characters defend themselves, are superbly delivered. Then, under the careful direction of Natalie Abrahami, the ensemble, some of whom are very young, all acquit themselves admirably.

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Lucy Cohu

Fans of Heartstopper (and I spotted a few) will be pleased with performances from Will Gao and Joe Locke. The former injects some much-needed light relief, while Locke clearly revels in having a darker character to deal with. But this is an ensemble piece – great care is taken to give all 12 cast members time and the show is good at this. Twelve is a lot of characters. Some of the roles may be sketched – they represent attitudes (often, anxieties) – but King ensures all are memorable and distinct.

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Honor Kneafsey

Honor Kneafsey as Ren is the central role, the strongest written character with a performance to match. Jowana El-Daouk also stands out for a streak of ruthlessness combined with a hatred of “dinosaur” elders – an internal conflict that is important. King has an uncanny ability to show and balance the conviction and anger of youth. The mischievous Tomaz intrigues most and Charlie Reid’s energetic performance of this lethargic character (not easy) is good. The role brings home how young those in charge are in the story.

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Charlie Reid

But are they really running things? There’s a lot unspoken in The Trials, which King plays with and could extrapolate. The jurors can ask for help… but from who? Do these witch hunts have a darker purpose? Is there some kind of catharsis going on? Or is it all about resources being scarce? With more big ideas bubbling away, this Utilitarian future comes under question. Avoiding easy answers, King has a fine play that is bleak, but undeniably absorbing.

Until 27 August 2022

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Mediocre White Male” and “Bi Bi Baileigh” at the King’s Head Theatre

These two, out of five, shows in the BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! season are part of a program with the billing “bi-boys, bad boys, biographies and bodies”. Both are enjoyable explorations of masculinity.

Mediocre White Male

This strong monologue, written by performer Will Close with Joe Von Malachowksi, develops and twists with skill. The character performs at a tourist attraction, reciting the same lines over the years, inviting questions about history while telling us about his own past. There are two stories then – both about the kind of men described by the title. How much does the past enforce the present? The script and production are well paced. Although less than an hour, the minutes – in a play keen to consider time – go remarkably quickly.

Avoiding too many plot spoilers, the show starts like a stand-up routine with a bold number of bad jokes but turns into something very different. The direction is focused, the design stripped back. This guy doesn’t seem too bad, if a little too stupid; you might even be lulled into sympathy for him. Feeling a generation gap when you are only 30 must be tough! There’s a sting – as you’ll probably expect – but if a touch predictable, this is a tale well told.

Until 2 September 2022

Bi Bi Baileigh

Slight if sweet, writer and performer Isaac Verrall’s show suffers by comparison with Mediocre White Male but still has merit. The twenty something character, whose love life we learn all about, is appealing but not quite as funny as he could be (the best line comes from Trixie Mattel). Verrall’s performance is energetic but nervous – there are stumbles. The lighting and sound design can be tightened. But Verrall is great with the crowd, using the theatre’s seats and getting us on his side. There is a strong sense of character and place in the piece.

Bi Bi Baileigh isn’t exactly rambling… but could benefit from more structure. Two date scenes are a good idea, and well written, but aren’t quite enough to pivot even a short show. There’s strong observation about casual homophobia and loneliness without being maudlin – well done. If the twist about an unexpected encounter arrives too late, there’s a useful message about sexual fluidity that isn’t heard often enough.

Until 10 September 2022

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

“Much Ado About Nothing” at the National Theatre

Simon Godwin’s solid production of Shakespeare’s comedy is perfect for the summer. Setting a play about confusion and miscommunication in a hotel add a farcical, holiday vibe. With live music and an intelligent nod to the play’s self-referentiality, it all adds up to a fine show. The casting of John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson makes the evening well above average.

Heffernan and Parkinson are great as the enemies-to-lovers Benedict and Beatrice. From the start, Benedict’s man-about-town act as a confirmed bachelor is only skin deep – which adds to the humour. Heffernan ensures we can tell Benedict is a sweet cynic. As surely everyone’s favourite Shakespearean heroine, Parkinson is suitably spiky but brings an interesting edge to the role. Together their “merry war of words” is fantastic.

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Ioanna Kimbook and Phoebe Horn

It may be ungenerous to point out that the leads’ comic timing is considerably better than the rest of the cast – but it is noticeable. There is firm support for them, especially a good Don Pedro in Ashley Zhangazha, who makes plans for mischief believable. The play’s second love story has a sweet Hero in Ioanna Kimbook and her maid manages ever better – Phoebe Horn makes the most of Margaret’s every moment.

It’s all jolly and it looks great – Anna Fleischle and Evie Gurney’s set and costume designs are a pleasure – but it might be a little slow? A lot of pace is lost with Dogberry, a head of security here, despite David Fynn’s efforts. (And if you want better malapropisms, then head next door for Jack Absolute Flies Again.) The curtain for the interval falls at the moment of the play’s nasty deception, when the marriage of Hero and Claudio is put at risk by the plotting villain Don John. This can be the point where you lose patience with the play (or is that just me?).

Happily, and unusually, the action then takes off. Heffernan is very good at Benedict’s macho moments and Parkinson shows us how deeply Beatrice feels. Kimbook also comes into her own (especially during a scene change).

It’s still not clear why Hero’s lover Claudio, who has treated her so badly, is forgiven (Eben Figueiredo, who takes the role, seems puzzled, too). I guess that’s really Shakespeare’s fault. Godwin deals thoughtfully with the play’s flaws. After the tension, the relief of a party works well. Even Dogberry, recast as a lounge singer, is welcome. The celebration may be brief but as a finale it’s fantastic.

Until 10 September 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Southbury Child” at the Bridge Theatre

The nice surprise in Stephen Beresford’s new play is that it isn’t just a vehicle for Alex Jennings. Taking the lead as wayward vicar David Highland, Jennings is – as always – excellent. But the show boasts a superb ensemble, impeccably directed by Nicholas Hytner, who all make the most of a play that tries very hard.

The scenario comes (deliberately?) close to silly: the vicar puts his foot down about balloons in his church for the titular child’s funeral. All the fuss (about hot air) becomes serious because of social media. Threats are made and Beresford does well with menace. It turns out the real issue is “integrity” – unfortunately, it’s Jennings and not the script that makes this convincing.

It’s a neat enough central dilemma to work a drama around, in the style of Ibsen. Highland is a flawed character but still wants to take a stand. His long-suffering family, the church and the wider community are quick to accuse him of hypocrisy. Of course, that doesn’t change the strength of his argument. I’m just not sure the argument is that good in the first place.

Beresford looks at balance, questioning and compromise – or at least his characters say they want all this. These aims shouldn’t be a surprise… this is the Church of England. But too much time is taken over disgruntled views of the modern world and ‘woke’ culture. To be generous, it seems the motivation is comedy. But that humour is a problem.

There are laughs in The Southbury Child. Quite a few, actually. But the jokes are painfully effortful. The treatment of Londoners, the politically correct or class differences are all clichéd. You can see every punchline a mile off. And, when in doubt, Beresford just makes the vicar swear. Jokes are forced on characters and into a script that so wants to be funny it feels desperate.

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Phoebe Nicholls

Beresford tackles plenty of issues. All the characters are given a chance as adoption, adultery, alcoholism and gay marriage are mentioned. These lead to strong performances from Racheal Ofori and Jo Herbert as Highland’s daughters, while his wife, played by Phoebe Nicholls, is stunning. There are stumbles with the working-class characters (the family whose child is to be buried) but further excellent work from Josh Finan and Sarah Twomey, who take the parts. The acting is five-star quality.

Yet it feels as if characters are assigned problems to represent – so that we come close to ticking off a plan of action. It’s not that any of the scenes are bad, more that they add up to something both confused and rigidly planned. The play loses focus and spends a long time looking for topicality and offering cheap gags. There’s a point made – that life is messy. But the vicar wants to make a claim not for mess but – nuance – and The Southbury Child lacks that very quality.

Until 27 August 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“South Pacific” at Sadler’s Wells

The fantastic songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical make any revival a must. The love between plantation owner Emile (Julian Ovenden) and army nurse Nellie (Gina Beck), with war as a backdrop, is hopelessly romantic. Get ready to swoon. Does the show’s message against racism make up for its misogyny and militarism? Well, no. But there are moments in this production when I thought Julian Ovenden’s singing could solve all the world’s problems.

Daniel Evans’ production, from the Chichester Festival Theatre, tries hard to focus on the indigenous characters of the islands that the action takes place on. Strong choreography by Ann Yee helps.

Bloody Mary, who sells tourist tat to the troops, becomes a forceful character in Joanna Ampil’s portrayal. Her desperation to marry her daughter off to a rich American is moving. The focus for the show’s second romance becomes Mary and her daughter Liat (Sera Maehara) rather than the suitor, Lt. Joseph Cable. That’s a shame for Rob Houchen, who does a good job in the role, but it’s a deft shift of focus.

Joanna Ampil, Sera Maehara & Rob Houchen in SOUTH PACIFIC Photo Johan Persson
Joanna Ampil, Sera Maehara & Rob Houchen

The show’s humour is a problem, though. The role of maverick sailor Luther Billis is an unhappy one – I guess the intention was to be endearing? As it stands, the part just makes the book (by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan) seem flabby. Evans downplays the show within a show (I wonder if the idea was a stab at realism), which is disappointing if understandable – there’s a lack of action overall, so the show can drag.

As for the nurses stationed with the troops… these “dames” are nothing more than a chorus (albeit a good one). It’s only Beck’s quirky delivery that raises any smiles – she’s good at this – while her fear of miscegenation is depicted in a suitably shocking manner. You couldn’t call Nellie a well-rounded character, but Beck does a good job with her.

It is with romance that South Pacific wins. And this production knows that. Beck enforces Nellie’s charm and she sounds wonderful. As for Ovenden – his voice has never been better and the role should surely be career defining. Every rendition of Some Enchanted Evening gave me goosebumps. This Nearly Was Mine is a long and difficult song, but I hoped for an ovation. It’s a surprisingly understated performance that comes from tremendous confidence and power. Ovenden’s expressive voice makes the whole production not be missed.

Until 28 August 2022

www.sadlerswells.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Monster” at the Park Theatre

Abigail Hood’s disturbing play works hard at being hard hitting. Tackling so much trauma – including the death of a child – ensures the drama is powerful. And the show is well performed, despite the bumpy script. But be prepared, the show is not for the faint hearted.

Kayleigh and Caitlin (Hood and Zoe Douglas) are schoolgirl lovers, and their affair is well depicted. Although they are both old for their age, with difficult backgrounds, Hood manages to remind us that they are still children. The girls are endearing and the humour is strong. But laughs stop quickly, and the play explodes in an exaggerated fashion.

An episodic structure, handled at a breakneck pace by director and dramaturg Kevin Tomlinson, feels horribly rushed. There’s little wrong with any of the scenes but all are so short that none quite satisfies. Secondary characters suffer. Although well performed by Gillian Kirkpatrick and Emma Keele, Kayleigh’s mother and a well-meaning schoolteacher do not convince. The former is a religious maniac/prostitute and the latter another victim of abuse seeking to “save” the young girl. Grim is fine, but sketchy proves frustrating.

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Kevin Wathen

There is a welcome change of pace after the interval. A calmer approach brings more depth. Set after Kayleigh’s release from prison, the aftermath of her crime is examined in more detail.  The scenario is contrived and the dialogue clunky, even clichéd. But observing how events have changed all the characters leads to good performances (and, since he hasn’t been mentioned yet, Kevin Wathen has a superb scene).

Might there be a too much sympathy for the monster of the title? Kayleigh is a fascinating character, from a smart girl with “no filter” to a woman genuinely haunted by what she has done. Hood conveys all this superbly, with a depiction so determined to be empathetic that it becomes bold and raises interesting questions. Despite problems in the script, which never hold the cast back, it’s interesting and brave to face the monstrous like this.

Until 20 August 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Ben Wilkin

“The Tempest” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Sean Holmes’ new production of Shakespeare’s late work puts forward the comedy and romance in the play. With eye-catching, crowd-pleasing touches, this tempest is light and fun.

The storm that starts the play is brief – it looks good but I barely heard a line. The magical island the action happens on is akin to a holiday resort, populated by inflatables and palm trees, with Prospero and Miranda sunning themselves. Caliban is the staff – he even has a badge.

So, lots of silliness and not much time for the scholarly debates that surround the play. Instead the productions strongest moments come with getting laughs. There’s a fine Trinculo and Stefano (Ralph Davis and George Fouracres who make a great team). And unusually, Ciarán O’Brien’s Caliban gets laughs. Peter Bourke makes the pompous Gonzalo funnier that I’ve seen before.

Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciaran O'Brien in The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe (credit Marc Brenner)
Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciarán O’Brien

The humour is hard work though – the comedy effortful. And it isn’t particularly original: including the crowd is something directors at the Globe can never resist and it seems a pop song in Shakespeare is obligatory (even if the selection of Three Lions is topical). The jokes land and a lot of additions (delivered in an adlibbed style) are good. Yet it is Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Ariel who stands out for being understated and still funny. The irony that Ariel grounds the production is, like Clarke’s fantastic performance, the subtlest thing in the show.

The play’s romance is strong too. Miranda and Ferdinand (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Olivier Huband) make a sweet couple – they get giggles as well. But the price paid for the fun is predictable. There’s little tension or suspense. And when Holmes tries to do more than have fun, the production stumbles. Take the masque scene for the newlyweds (always tricky): any suggestion of challenge is lost in laughs. The production’s high spirits mean the supernatural in the play is only a side show.

Ferdy Roberts’ Prospero is still interesting. This mage is more than a touch mad and Roberts manages dignity despite spending much of the show in Speedos. But the idea that Prospero is enjoying his revenge becomes overpowering. When depth or emotion is needed, despite Roberts’ skill, it jars. A partying Prospero just doesn’t work – while the execution here deserves praise, the idea does not.

Until 22 October 2022

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“101 Dalmatians” at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

While adults like lots of shows that are aimed at kids, giving children’s theatre a broad appeal isn’t a necessary condition for praise. This new musical from Douglas Hodge, based on Dodie Smith’s book, deserves plenty of stars but is aimed so firmly at youngsters it doesn’t offer much to anyone over 12.

Even the average teenager could get restless with the frantic energy in Timothy Sheader’s production. With Toby Olié’s strong puppetry and Colin Richmond’s shouty set, the feeling of a cartoon or Saturday morning TV show fills the stage. If you’re as old as I am, you might end up with a headache.

Which is not to say that the show shouldn’t earn your respect.

There are clever lyrics and jaunty, if not particularly memorable, songs. A stronger second half includes good numbers for children in the cast. It just isn’t a soundtrack you would want to listen to at home. Johnny McKnight’s book (from a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris) is a touch too crammed and could move quicker – but it is fun.

There’s a great villain too, of course, in Cruella De Vil. Updating the furrier’s best friend into a social media influencer is a great idea. Willing to risk “eternal Dalmatian” in hell to get a coat of puppies is a pun that was the highlight of the night for me. Kate Fleetwood takes the role (and a pair of very high-heeled boots) in her stride and gives a performance to be proud of.

In short, there’s little to fault in the production. Cruella’s accomplices make a pair of nicely old-fashioned crooks for George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon. And there are appealing performances from the dog’s “pets”, i.e., their owners, played by Eric Stroud and Karen Fishwick. Singing for the dogs and being literally a part of the puppet means that Danny Collins and Emma Lucia get even more points. The performances are bright and bouncy; even addressing the audience is done with an eye on their age.

There is a reservation it seems fair to raise – the venue itself. The Open Air Theatre has a tradition of work for children but this gorgeous location doesn’t seem particularly well used. Howard Hudson’s lighting design further on in the show gives an idea of what we are missing. And it is late at this time of the year. With a 7:45 start time for a relatively long show, most of the target audience are well past their bedtime by the time they get home.

Until 28 August 2022

www.openairtheatre.com