Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Nine Lives” at The Bridge Theatre

Of the many recorded offerings during lockdown, Zodwa Nyoni’s play about a gay immigrant has been a highlight. Now this beautifully written, politically urgent piece has a short run as part of Nicholas Hytner’s season of monologues. And, Nine Lives is even better in real life.

The power of Nyoni’s writing was clear on the screen. Her character of Ishmael involves us in his struggle in a moving way while retaining a sense of humour. The issues around gay rights and immigration, looking at Ishmael’s past as well as life in his new home, are deftly handled.

Nyoni’s sophistication becomes all the more powerful when seen in person. Benefitting from this chance to see the show in a theatre is director Alex Chisholm, whose careful work is even more obvious. And gaining most is the show’s star Lladel Bryant. It’s fantastic to see Bryant hold a stage (and The Bridge is a big space) with such ease, drawing his audience in and making us care so much. And laugh too – moments when Bryant takes on extra characters that Ishmael meets have a magical charm.

Nyoni’s text has the refrain “some of us…”, calling forth lives other than Ishmael’s on to the stage. It serves as a reminder of the dangers fled from and the treatment of people in need of help. Reminders of group identities and responsibilities are why it’s so important to see Nine Lives with others; to have witness born in public, in front of an audience is something theatre offers that screens cannot. Community runs through the play and that is something best experienced together.

Until 31October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Adam Robinson

“Buyer and Cellar” at the Above The Stag Theatre

Jonathan Tolins’ sharp and successful one-man play is easy to enjoy. Using the extravagance of celebrity to look at fandom and fame in equal measure, this super smart script is full of knowing jokes that should guarantee constant laughter.

Stars don’t get much brighter than Barbra Streisand and to base a fiction around her home life means there’s more than enough material for an hour and half show. It helps to know about her career, but Tolins’ writing is strong enough for anyone to find the show funny.

Director Andrew Beckett appreciates the variety of humour he has to work with and the show’s pacing is effective: there’s the boredom of out-of-work actor Alex’s job in Streisand’s basement (it’s even weirder than it sounds) punctuated by moments of elation when he gets to meet ‘her’.

For all its merits, the production doesn’t quite match the show’s previous London outing at the Menier. The performer here is Adam Sidwell, who does well but doesn’t manage to land all the jokes. Sidwell is careful to stay on the right side of impersonation when delivering Streisand’s lines and good when taking on the role of his boss Sharon. But scenes where he also performs as Alex’s boyfriend aren’t so successful: the couple’s speculation on Streisand – which Tolins develops nicely – flip flops without the required finesse.

Streisand is always going to be more interesting than Alex. But shouldn’t we root for him a little more? Nonetheless, it is easy to share Alex’s escapism in Buyer and Cellar. And… nice; we could all do with something different nowadays and a comedy is good programming. Given their sturdy work, I for one have no wish to rain on Sidwell and Beckett’s parade.

Until 8 November 2020

www.abovethestage.org.uk

“We Were Having A Perfectly Nice Time” at the Omnibus Theatre

Shy of half an hour in length, Pedro Leandro’s play isn’t reticent when it comes to its themes of friendship and unrequited love. For such a short show, this two-hander is hugely satisfying.

The flatmates who discuss a possible romance between each other, made all the more awkward by their shared pessimism, are great characters with distinctive world views. Neither woman suffers fools, or each other, gladly. It’s hard not to like them very quickly and admiration for Leandro’s cleverly written banter instantaneous too.

Much praise goes to director Evan Lordan and performers Stephanie Booth and Hannah Livingstone whose deadpan deliveries bring out the humour in the piece. It must be tough to react so subtly, especially when the scenario is touching and heartfelt. That both women get so much meaning out of a monotonous delivery is fantastic.

This brand of miserabilism is smart. And, yes, appropriate for our times: that love is described as “like the flu” works well too. Cynicism isn’t always appealing but here it creates sincerity as both women realise that, beyond their negativity they want someone to “see us and say yes”. If you think the two would probably make a great couple, it only makes Leandro’s text all the more bittersweet.

Until 24 October 2020

www.omnibus-clapham.org

“The Last Five Years” at the Southwark Playhouse

After having its run cut short by the lockdown, this return to the stage – for this five-star show – is especially welcome. This is a superb production of a fantastic musical.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle and his talented performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson, as the couple, Cathy and Jamie whose romance we follow, all get the most from Jason Robert Brown’s superb writing.

The story’s structure is original: Cathy’s tale plays backwards (we start by seeing the marriage end) and alternates with Jamie, who begins by falling in love. Showing us such highs and lows, flipping back and forth from song to song, is explicated and elaborated magnificently by O’Boyle.

The interaction between Lynch and Higginson – which is mostly ignoring one another – as they sing about different times in their lives, creates a layered, often ghostly, effect. A moment when Jamie reaches for Cathy’s hand, which she is oblivious to, results in shivers. Even smarter, both performers take turns on a piano, starting or ending each other’s numbers to startling effect. A revolving stage, part of Lee Newby’s set, adds further sophistication.

Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography places extra demands on both cast members which, along with sounding great, they live up to. Again, some of the imagery created is almost spectral, as if each can see the other in their imagination but fail to really communicate. 

Lynch brings a credible fragility to her sympathetic character that proves moving. We are on her side from the start. It was a worry whether she would manage lighter numbers but, thankfully, these have a satisfactory comedy to them. Lynch works wonders with a ukulele and that revolving stage.

Each time I see The Last Five Years I like Jamie a little less. The character seems more arrogant and selfish as I age! And Jamie objectifies Cathy something rotten. Countering this, Higginson’s performance is often charming and energetic, as well as always heartfelt. There’s an edge that makes me suspect Higginson doesn’t like Jamie much either… I hope so.

George Dyer’s musical direction is also impressive (the percussion sometimes a little heavy). And I wonder if the show was originally conceived for a proscenium stage, understandably altered for extra socially distanced capacity? I’d certainly recommend you don’t sit to the sides. So, the production isn’t perfect… but it’s pretty close, and one of the best shows in years.  

Until 14 November 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Seeds” from No Stone Theatre

While Covid-19 has closed venues, theatre practitioners continue to impress admirers with their efforts online and, increasingly, with audio plays. I have to confess I find podcasts and the like hard work: it’s too easy to be distracted while trying to listen and wonder how sound effects are achieved. But Seeds is an intriguing true story – scientists in 1940s Russia struggling with the world’s first seed bank. And offered in bite-size chunks over six weeks, even a short attention span like mine should cope.

The first episode raises plenty of questions. A newly awakened patient, escaping from hospital during a fire, is dramatic enough. Only knowing “ten minutes of my history for certain” means we learn (and ‘see’) everything fresh just like the intriguing injured character. How did she get to hospital? Is she allowed to leave? If the descriptive detail is occasionally laboured, the delivery from Nina Sosanya is expert.

As for those sound effects and score, both by Jon Ouin, it’s interesting to hear them mirror the patient’s increasing awareness. Ouin complements the action wonderfully. Nicholas Pitt confidently directs Nick Walker’s text. The latter has plenty of experience on radio and creates a vivid mental picture, while developing plot, in a thorough fashion that increases in tension and mystery. Walker makes sure we want to know what happens next…

Future episodes will develop the story of our patient and the work of Nikolai Vavilov, a plant geneticist who came to a sorry end. The project had environmental concerns that make it startling relevant, even beyond an original intention of preventing famine. The “mission” has the backdrop of Soviet politics and World War II to add extra drama and will star Katy Stephens, Jordon Kemp, Kirsty Rider and Graeme Rose.

www.nostonetheatre.com

“Bare E-ssentials 5: Far From Home” from Encompass Productions

The last instalment of this online writing night – which has been a real boon over lockdown – is good news! Good, because a real-life event is planned, at The White Bear Theatre, in November. I’ve already got my ticket.

The finale spoils theatre lovers with six shorts of a high standard that are strong on comedy. Two very short pieces, Suburban Buffalo Sighting by Elizabeth Speckman and Nuns by Vicky Richards, entertain. The Front Line, by Linda Robinson, is a nice take on a zoom call: a job interview for a prison officer that’s sure to make you cringe. Both Mark Keegan and Ryan Brannon are splendid as, respectively, the tactful but exasperated interviewer and the candidate who ticks all the wrong boxes. Director Jonathan Woodhouse does well with the video format.

Mark Keegan and Ryan Brannon in 'The Front Line'
Mark Keegan and Ryan Brannon in ‘The Front Line’

For me, the highlight for laughs is Ken Preuss’ piece, A Dave With Destiny. This quirky two-hander has a random meeting and a couple trying to work out where they have seen each other before. The characters are a treat that performers Ramzi DeHani and Jennie Delaney clearly enjoy. There are good gags (pork-based jokes are always fun) that director Rachael Owens marshals well. Preuss handles the ending, always tricky for short pieces, with aplomb.

The night’s dramatic offering was less successful but still deserves praise. Brothers in Arms by Warren Paul Glover is an ambitious World War I drama with siblings in the trenches confronting a secret about their private lives as they prepare to go over the top. The period language is not convincing and there’s too much cliché. But performers Will Bridges and Jack Christie do a commendable job. Above all, Glover and the team assigned to his piece by Encompass (Owens directs once more) illustrate the project’s aims and achievements. It matters not a jot that uniforms haven’t been procured or that the action takes place in someone’s hallway; the idea of focusing on writing and performance, showing us the bare essentials of theatre, is present and correct.

A final treat comes from the show’s compère – the marvellous Mr Liam Fleming. A frequent director during the series, Little Pieces shows his talent as a writer. Clearly, helping to choose so many shorts plays has taught him lessons. Fleming crams in comedy and emotion, with a strong concept opened up and explored. A super delivery from Alice Corrigan only adds to the considerable charm of the piece. The idea of questioning the vagaries of our memory is a fitting end to a series that has helped during difficult times and that I will remember fondly.

www.encompassproductions.co.uk

“Wilde Without The Boy” at the Playground Theatre

Here’s a one-man show with a difference. Gareth Armstrong’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, takes a fascinating text and reveals its complexity admirably. As the genius author’s relationship with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas is recounted with considerable tension, an emotive case for a spiritual journey is presented. More than a monologue, the show is an intelligent engagement with a historic text.

Gerard Logan takes the role of Wilde. The performance is one of great subtlety and nuance. Already well-acclaimed, and rightly so, Logan presents an Oscar without exaggeration and few affectations. Nearing the end of his prison sentence, it’s a broken man that we see. But also one claiming to have rebuilt himself through suffering.

How convincing you find the humility of the self-proclaimed “lord of language” is for you to judge. How much of a victim to an uncontrollable passion is also open to debate. And how pain and suffering relate to plenty of talk about the soul might make your head spin. But Logan is utterly convincing when it comes to Wilde’s devotion to Douglas. And he is very good when it comes to showing Wilde’s terror at events. Further, with more than a little superiority and glimpses of cruelty, care is taken to ensure Wilde isn’t entirely likeable.

The evening ends with a further treat. A performance of Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s an excellent pairing that aids the argument within Armstrong’s text perfectly, and the influence of Wilde’s experience on his art becomes crystal clear. Accompanied by a sensitive score from Simon Slater, Logan’s delivery is a huge achievement. Surely this poem is the one last work of art discussed in De Profundis and the case made for the work’s status as a masterpiece. It is a rare treat indeed to hear a recital of this quality.

Until 27 September 2020

www.theplaygroundtheatre.london

“Sunnymead Court” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Gemma Lawrence’s new play, impeccably directed by James Hillier, is a love story set during lockdown. References to the recent hot – and a bit boring – summer abound. Lawrence conveys the frustrations and problems of this period, notably working from home. Impressive detail includes a character moving back to her family… and her homophobic parent.

Love across the balconies of a London estate adds charm and hope. The obstacles faced by two women are surmounted by humour, drama and a dash of chance. The characters grab your sympathy straight away, impressively, for different reasons. They make great roles for Lawrence as Marie, who is joined by Remmie Milner as Stella, whose complementary energy makes a neat contrast.

My heart sank at first, as Marie starts out with her back to the audience staring at a computer. I didn’t come into the theatre (even one so welcoming, thanks to its lovely staff) to stare at a screen! But Lawrence’s close study of Marie’s anxiety is cleverly developed and has a relevance far beyond our current conditions.

Marie takes to isolation dangerously easily. Living online, and working too much, her relationship to her own body (from food consumed to routines followed) becomes troubled. Stella sees the problem, too: technology means we can “hide ourselves in our pockets”, while a joyous scene of dancing has Milner conveying the thrill of a “full” body experience. All this is, surely, a trend lockdown has exacerbated, rather than created. That debate aside, Lawrence highlights a concerning mental health trend with heartfelt sensitivity.

Importantly, for theatre lovers at least, is how this relationship to the body is conveyed on stage. With the actors apparently controlling Will Monks’ lighting, both become increasingly physically involved in the performance of the story. From glances at one another – anxious then often cheeky – to more and more movement, a sense of complicity is skilfully developed.

Lawrence uses her characters’ anxieties, and the problems of our times, to create a story that should appeal long after this summer is over.

Until 3 October 2020

www.actorscentre.co.uk

Photo by Jack Holden

“The Wild Duck” at Theatro Technis

Although a few venues are valiantly reopening this month, with small-scale shows and new writing, here is a chance to see a full-length classic with a larger cast. At the moment no show needs more to sell itself!

The production, presented by The Acting Gymnasium, has problems: rehearsals during lockdown can’t have been easy and one performer lost her voice as the run was about to begin (resulting in an admirable stand-in from Gintare Smigleskyte, working from the book).

Despite less than ideal circumstances, the chance to see this early masterpiece from Ibsen – a story of two sons and their fathers, with lots of indignation and insight – is well worth it. With metaphorical and moral blindness pitted against idealism, there should be plenty of thought provoked.

The show is solid rather than imaginative and the result a little stilted. A notable lack of Ibsen’s humour isn’t just down to the play being a particularly pessimistic tragicomedy. It’s also hard not to see the roles of Relling and Molvik (played by Crispin Holland and Eugene Doris respectively) as somewhat lost. Heavy handed it may be, but Ibsen wrote a doctor and a theologian in for a reason and they should stand out more.

Nonetheless, the ensemble supports one another well – and it really is great to see more than one person on a stage at a time. Irving Jones and Alan Kenny stand out as the older generation, with murky secrets suggested skilfully. For their sons, Kim Gjersoe does best when his character, Gregers, shows righteous outrage (which is, thankfully, quite often). Dhvel Patel takes the more sympathetic role of Hjalmar. Patel’s delivery could be clearer: louder, slower and with less fussing over props. But there is clearly an intelligent appreciation of the text and fine touches to enjoy from the depiction of a complex character.

Spacious for a fringe venue, with chairs removed Theatro Technis can accommodate 45 comfortably. I’ve seen plenty of shows with viewer seats occupied. Given the admirable work here, this Camden venue is well placed to carry a torch for fringe theatre during lockdown. Fingers crossed.

Until 26 September 2020

www.theatrotechnis.com

“My Beautiful Launderette” from the Curve Leicester

In the hope of much-needed donations during lockdown, director Nikolai Foster has made this archival recording, from a production last year, available to theatre lovers. Hanif Kureishi’s own adaptation of his renowned 1985 film, concerning immigration and 1980s Britain, proves a real treat.

The recording is of a dress rehearsal – so not strictly suitable for review – but well worth watching. Playing to an empty auditorium, a few of the performances are somewhat shrill. But this is impressive work in progress from the nine-strong cast that made me envy those lucky enough to have seen the show.

Gordon Warnecke (who played Omar in the original film) and Kammy Darweish play brothers from Pakistan. Kureishi’s script conveys a strong sense of their history, even though they only meet in the final scene. There’s a similarly fantastic chemistry between the leads from a younger generation – Johnny and Omar – played by Jonny Fines and Omar Malik respectively. And a strong performance from Hareet Deol as family friend Salim, who is “cunning, dangerous and a liar”, with each quality shown with convincing menace.

It’s the changes Kureishi has made to his script, which Foster directs with confidence, that fascinate. Deol benefits, as his role is far more central as part of a boosted plot. The roles of Nasser’s wife and daughter (now “a revolutionary”) have both been expanded. There’s also more to hear from Johnny’s fascist friends, a move that isn’t so successful. The two characters here are just too stupid: that may be accurate given their views, but it doesn’t serve the piece dramatically – despite the violence in the play, they are bizarrely unthreatening.

While the love affair between Johnny and Omar was explicit in the film, Kureishi spends more time with their relationship on stage. Starting as friends, their love story develops with humour, tenderness and eroticism. The romance makes for some magical theatrical moments that use Grace Smart’s set and a soundtrack from none other than the Pet Shop Boys to great effect. 

Seeing this recording will surely make you miss live theatre more than ever, provoking fond memories for those lucky enough to have seen the show for real and providing a chance for the rest of us to glimpse a fascinating show I’d love to see revived sometime.

Available at www.curveonline.co.uk/the-show-must-go-online/