Category Archives: Uncategorised

“Sap” at the Soho Theatre

This fringe hit is a remarkably accomplished play from Rafaella Marcus. As a debut, it’s tempting to be inspired by its botanical references and write that there’s potential for growth. But, in truth, Sap is a show in full bloom that easily deserves five-star status.

Beginning with strong comedy that endears its central character, Daphne, to an audience, a gripping plot and intelligent script places mythology in the modern world to examine attitudes towards bisexuality and the effects of sexual violence.

The observational jokes that start the show are strong, with work life and Daphne’s sexuality creating complicity with the audience. Direct addresses prove to be one of the many highlights of Jessica Lazar’s superb direction. There is an undertone of what’s to come – Daphne is sensitive and stressed, a frank overthinker who shares too much – conveyed brilliantly in Jessica Clark’s stunning performance in the role.

It’s always impressive when a playwright changes the mood of their work, but let’s not forget that it’s hard. Marcus moves the tone of Sap with a skill that seems effortless. The plot twist in the play made the whole audience groan on the night I saw it – a fantastic moment of theatre. And what comes after the unusual twist is deeply disturbing, as well as original.

Clark is joined by Rebecca Banatvala, who plays several other characters and provides sterling support. Banatvala is especially good as the play’s male antagonist – a lawyer “spat out” of a cloistered quadrangle (what a phrase! You just know him, don’t you?). The script is marvellous, full of vivid imagery and ideas without being overpowering, and not a word could be pruned. Poetry and myth are used sparingly and to great effect.

The physical reaction to Daphne’s anxiety and a series of attacks that she suffers recalls the metamorphosis of her namesake – she feels bark enclosing her body, trapping but also protecting her. It’s a brilliant idea that is enhanced by Lazar’s use of movement. Just as impressive, the conceit isn’t overused – the idea builds powerfully and culminates in a scene that is another theatrical highlight, however harrowing.

The problem of depicting violence towards women is handled with innovation and intelligent. There is a strong sense that Daphne’s insecurities, as well as the biphobia she is subjected too, have created a woman who feels unworthy of the love offered to her. In fact, despite her faults, we can see that she is a “glorious” character – her girlfriend is right when she calls her this, and glorious is a word that can be applied to whole show.

Until 22 April 2023

Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

“Guys and Dolls” at the Bridge Theatre

Nicholas Hytner brings immersive theatre to a musical in this superb revival of Frank Loesser’s classic Broadway ‘fable’. The Bridge has seen its audience in the thick of the action before (for productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but a song and dance show is different and Hytner’s approach makes this lives-and-loves story about 1930s gamblers extra special.

If you choose a ticket in the pit, you are standing – and moved around a lot as stages rise and fall and props are brought in from all directions. Characters searching for a craps game push past you and a soul-saving Salvation Army mission parts the crowd. A group of ushers dressed as New York cops handles the audience and deserves a special mention. The atmosphere is fantastic. Get in early and don’t leave during the interval.

Apart from tiny fringe venues, you couldn’t be closer to it all… which is not to say it is for everyone. Although choreographers Arlene Phillips and James Cousins do a brilliant job, considering the space available, and the cast makes every effort, you might miss a big dance number in the show.

Standing is enormous fun, but also distracting, as you have to move during the songs. And this is singing you really don’t want to miss. Because the big thrill with the production isn’t this immersive approach so much as how fantastic it all sounds and how funny it all is.

Andrew Richardson and Celinde Schoenmaker make a swoon-worthy couple as Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown. The production doesn’t hold back with romance, embracing a period feel that would be pointless to ignore (it really is terribly old fashioned!).

Daniel Mays and Andrew Richardson

Daniel Mays seems born to play Nathan Detroit, making the most out of every gag. The jokes in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book hold up very well indeed. But, just as impressive, I’ll admit I had a tear in my eye when Mays sang Sue Me.

Celinde Schoenmaker and Marisha Wallace

As for Detroit’s long-suffering fiancée, Marisha Wallace’s performance cannot be praised enough. Her Adelaide’s Lament is hilarious, and she convinces as the star of the Hot Box Club with a stunning rendition of Take Back Your Mink.

The show’s lovers are sweet. But there are strong supporting performances that open up the performance and reveal how fresh Hytner’s approach is. Cedric Neal’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s crowd pleasing Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat is as excellent as ever. But note how many of his scenes are accompanied by the excellent Mark Oxtoby as Benny Southstreet – the characters have a strong relationship. And the friendship between Adelaide and Sarah is also a highlight. Both performers are good stage drunks and Marry The Man Today is turned into a highlight.

Bringing out the strengths of the book is a smart idea. Hytner takes every opportunity to flesh out the characters and, with such a stunning cast, the result is spectacular. Getting up close and personal is great, but seeing this show – full stop – is the important thing.

Until 24 February 2024

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Betty Blue Eyes” at the Union Theatre

There’s a big heart and a lot that’s smart behind this 2011 musical from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The story, based on Alan Bennett’s A Private Function, is full of quirky humour and quaint touches. But the strength of this revival comes from director Sasha Regan allowing space for quiet; Regan makes room for simple pleasures and tender moments.

The story has deliberately silly touches – it’s about a chiropodist and his wife stealing a pig destined to be slaughtered to celebrate a royal marriage…so lots of scope there. Add a mother-in-law, flatulence, and Spam and it’s no wonder there are so many laughs. It all leads to some strong and very funny lyrics. And there’s fun choreography from Kasper Cornish that includes sausages.

Although a period piece the show isn’t trapped in its 1947 setting. The date provides humour, and Reuben Speed’s costume design is good, but concerns about the state of the nation are perennial. Poking fun at patriotism gives the piece some meat.

The score doesn’t quite match the standard of the words but the music is entertaining and well structured. Characterisation is another strength that Regan emphasises. Betty Blue Eyes has a collection of strong parts that the cast work hard with: both Jonny Weston and George Dawes stand out with more than one role. And the show’s villain (a government meat inspector) proves a gift for David Pendlebury.

The leads roles of Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers are ambitious tasks for Amelia Atherton and Sam Kipling who should be proud of their performances. The Chilvers’ marriage is the production’s focus as the couple battle against their own sense of inferiority in the face of class prejudice and rationing. Atherton has strong comedy skills in her matriarchal role and lands a lot of laughs while making sure the Joyce’s snobbery doesn’t alienate an audience.

Joyce has a lesson to learn about the kind of man her husband really is – a topic that is treated tenderly – since Gilbert is an unusual hero. Pushing the character past simply being endearing is the challenge and, with a strong voice and a tear in his eye, Kipling succeeds. This gentle man stands in contrast to brash entitlement and suggests a different view of masculinity and British identity. Big claims and questions might not be what you expect from a show about a roast dinner…and that surprise makes the show crackle.

Until 22 April 2023

Photo by Michaela Walshe

“A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Phoenix Theatre

The Almeida Theatre’s hit transfer of the Tennessee Williams classic boasts three Olivier Awards. And it could easily have earned another for director Rebecca Frecknall.

As with a previous production of a lesser-known Williams work, Summer and Smoke, Frecknall’s inventive, disciplined approach has startling results. The freshness and vigour are especially noticeable with a famous piece – this Streetcar is fast, loud, and shocking.

Speed first: the delivery here is astonishingly swift, not just the action but the lines. Blanche, played by Patsy Ferran, is especially skilled. The character’s long speeches are delivered as if they belong in a thriller. The production would feel rushed if everything weren’t so clear.

As for loud, there’s the musical accompaniment from Angus MacRae, written mostly for percussion and sure to give you a few jumps. The sound design (Peter Rice) is excellent – nothing is lost, despite a lot of cymbals. And there’s another source of volume – Paul Mescal – the actor who won one of those Olivier Awards.

Mescal’s Stanley shouts every line. It’s a tremendously physical performance with lots of running around. It is possible to feel sorry for Stanley (I’ve seen it in other productions), so you might find this portrayal less subtle than usual. Accusations about the man being an animal are emphasised and the character is very much the villain. When he hits and bullies, he enjoys it.

The violence against women in the play is Frecknall’s target. Stanley isn’t the only animal we see as he is joined by the other male performers who act like a pack. There is even the suggestion that Blanche is raped by this gang.

The trauma of Blanche’s marriage is highlighted from the start, creating immediate sympathy. But this production takes a harsh look at our heroine as well. Blanche doesn’t fool Frecknall, or Ferran, as the character’s wish to create a sense of magic is harshly exposed. You can be enchanted by, or suspicious, of Blanche, but here excuses and plans are blatant. Take the line “I want magic!” – Blanche screams it like a banshee.

To top all this, there’s an excellent Stella and Eunice (the upstairs landlord) who both enforce Frecknall’s focus on women in the play. Anjana Vasan has another well-deserved Olivier award for Stella – her passion for Stanley balanced by a concern for Blanche. And Janet Etuk makes her relatively small role of Eunice stand out. In solidarity with Blanche, the women form a trio in a way I haven’t noticed before. The insight, from an interpretation of the text that has conviction and vision, justifies that third award – for best revival.

Until 6 May 2023

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley” at Stone Nest

‘The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro’ was the motion debated at the Cambridge Union in 1965. The event is famous partly because of its speakers, James Baldwin and William F Buckley, and was a precursor to the latter’s famous television confrontation with Gore Vidal (the event is mentioned, and Baldwin appears, in James Graham’s play The Best of Enemies). Reenacted in this adaption by director Christopher McElroen, the piece fits neatly into the genre of verbatim theatre.

The structure of the debate serves the show well – there’s plenty of drama in the format, after all. It’s a smart move to have Baldwin and Buckley joined by the undergraduates who also spoke at the debate – they set the scene and build tension. That the younger men’s speeches are poorer proves interesting – for them the public speaking is an exercise that lacks the conviction and the intelligence that is to come. Strong performances from Tom Kiteley and Christopher Wareham reflect youthful nerves and bravado well.


Baldwin and Buckley, performed by Teagle F Bougere and Eric T Miller, respectively, are the star attractions and their speeches are justifiably famous. Bougere brings Baldwin’s passion to the stage, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him even before he speaks as you record his reactions to what he hears. Miller shows the wily Buckley at his ‘best’ with a mix of faux self-deprecation and a performance of objectivity that impress as well as chills. Both bring their roles to life using their skills as actors rather than impersonators.

It is the skill in implanting the debate into our reality that makes the show great theatre. After all, you can watch the debate on YouTube so why go to the show? McElroen has a TV set on stage, with a voiceover introducing the event and its speakers. It is smart reminder that we should question the distance that watching the show as an archival recording from 1965 creates between us and the arguments. Because what we hear – live – is shockingly relevant. 

The way Buckley alienates and then demonises Baldwin may be more subtly polite than we are used to nowadays but could be a playbook for polarising politicians. As Baldwin recounts the impact the colour of his skin has had on his life, current concerns with systemic racism come into focus. Baldwin speaks of how our very reality is shaped by racism. A performance like this allows us to question how much that reality has changed.

Until 15 April 2023

Photos by EllieKurttz

“Black Superhero” at the Royal Court Theatre

Danny Lee Wynter’s debut play brims with wit, contemporary preoccupations and important issues. Like a lot of theatre lately, Black Superhero is concerned with representation. And the play offers valuable insight into racism and the pressure of hyper-masculinity on black men. But despite excellent performances and strong staging from director Daniel Evans, with the help of his designer Joanna Scotcher, the piece is over-stretched and confusing.

Discussions about race and gay life come via three friends: David, Raheem, and King.  The trio are actors who, as actors do, talk about casting and in particular casting straight actors in gay roles. Oh, and they talk about King’s open marriage. The ideas are well observed and the chat funny – if it sounds a bit like a Twitter feed, that shows skill on Wynter’s part. But it is only David’s sister, Kweku, who really appeals; as a voice of no-nonsense that Rochenda Sandall delivers brilliantly, she is a great character who almost steals the show.

King is a successful actor, in a superhero franchise, and Dyllón Burnside takes the part with suitable charisma. King’s liberation (or maybe his midlife crisis if you prefer Kweku’s view) results in an affair with David. The latter’s fragility is revealed in Wynter’s sensitive performance of the part. But this central role is too slight – take David’s ambitions, he is cast as Horatio but wants to be Hamlet. David needs to be given more time. Maybe as a writer, Wynter has been overgenerous to his fellow performers? There is too little tension – we can see trouble ahead for David too easily. The subjects of absent fathers, abuse and trauma, make the piece emotionally powerful but are not developed in depth.

“What kind of queer are you?”

Changes of focus prove distracting. There’s a great scene with King interrogated about his sexuality at a press junket – extremely topical and very well done. Burnside is excellent at showing a frosty charm and frustration. And there’s another subplot about a producer (a strong role that Ako Mitchell is superb in) accused in “me too” style. While both tangents connect to Wynter’s larger themes, neither is explored sufficiently.

Nor is the central conceit effectively handled. The idea that we can learn a lot about ourselves and society from who our heroes are, is a premise with potential. The idea is employed in scenes of fantasy, as David imagines the films coming to life, that are theatrical highlights. But the idea is left hanging. Working out who the superhero here is – Danny, King or maybe his sister – could be engaging but ends up a puzzle.

Until 29 April 2023

Photo by Ajamu X

“Sleepova” at the Bush Theatre

Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini structures her new play to great effect. At first, the scenario is simple, slight even, with four friends celebrating a 16th birthday. As a sweet coming-of-age story with great humour, and fantastic energy from Jade Lewis’ impeccable direction, there are smiles all round.

Ibini tackles common problems that come with writing about young people well. Rey, Elle, Shan and Funmi are smart and very funny, but not so much beyond their years. They have some silly ideas – one source of fun – but their wit is a delight. Ibini’s writing is detailed and specific – addressing age, race and location – but always has an eye on universal experiences that come from first loves and leaving school.

The cast responds to the strong script superbly. Amber Grappy, Shayde Sinclair, Aliyah Odoffin and Bukky Bakray bring an ease to the scenes that make the girls’ ages and friendships convincing. They are a joy to watch. The characters are distinct and complex. While you fear a sharp tongue, with cutting lines delivered perfectly by Bakray, or note Grappy’s cleverly suggested nonchalance, it is clear these girls care deeply about each other. Grappy and Sinclair make their roles charming but both Rey and Elle have a selfish side that makes them believable. The quartet’s touching friendship, mixing banter with sincerity, comes to the fore when things get tough for all of them.

Ibini prepares us for the play to become darker… but I admit I was having so much fun I missed it. After the interval, Elle’s parents’ protectiveness becomes abusive when she is sent to a gay conversation camp. Meanwhile Rey’s affair with an older woman has its own problems. Shan suffers from sickle cell disease and has a near-death experience. And Funmi’s father dies. There is heartbreak in Sleepova – every character has a scene that moves, a defining moment in their maturity, an instant when a young life is being shaped.

By getting to know the girls, the audience is invested in them and cares about the problems they face. Sleepova is gripping as a result. Maybe the four grow up a little too quickly? Or maybe they mature too evenly? But big problems are faced and the development of each is heartwarming. Remarkably, humour is retained throughout – the performers are fantastic comedians – even in the darkest moments. The sense that, through their friendship, all will be well might be an idealistic touch. But Sleepova’s optimism makes it a play to fall in love with.

Until 8 April 2023

Photo by Helen Murray

“Macbeth” at the Southwark Playhouse

Flabbergast Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy is a brave failure. The show is full of arresting imagery and committed performances – it is bold from start to finish. But a central conceit is hard to pin down and uncomfortably constraining… Macbeth in a madhouse seems close to describing what’s going on. That the idea turns out less interesting than it sounds is a shame, given the tremendous effort of all involved.

Linking Macbeth to insanity isn’t a bad idea. Fits are mentioned, there are famous hallucinations, and the banqueting scene is ripe for such an interpretation. Can the witches be mad? Of course, they’ve been everything else in various productions. And the suggestion that Banquo’s murderer is schizophrenic is a good touch. But the whole idea does, forgive me, straitjacket the play. It’s scary and unpredictable (an achievement of sorts) but it is hard to take the drama seriously as connections between the characters are severed. While the ensemble work together well, the characters seem isolated in individual trauma.

Henry Maynard’s direction is aided by work with movement from Matej Majeka which is often interesting.  The whole ensemble impress, not least with some of their backbends. Everyone is on stage a lot and never loses focus. The musical arrangements from Adam Clifford make great use of percussion and the ensemble are a good choir. The small amount of puppetry that features is worth noting. But every aspect of the show is exaggerated and that turns into a serious flaw.

There are technical problems too. The production fails to consider the venue’s thrust stage so that two thirds of the audience are ignored too often. Above all, hearing what anyone is saying is very difficult. Taking the lead role, Maynard tries hard but it is really only Kyll Thomas-Cole’s Malcolm we get to hear properly. There’s no way you’d know what was going on without a thorough knowledge of the play and while the company can be proud of its energy, that makes the effort here wasted.

Until 8 April 2023

Photo by Picturegrafix

“That’s Ace” at the Vault Festival

A night in a nightclub is the very simple scenario for Jonny Brace’s play. We follow the adventures of Ace as she waits for a school friend, Sasha, who she might be in love with; as an asexual, Ace is not sure. The play’s exploration of her dilemma is sensitive, smart, and above all funny.

Ace is blunt, she has a logical mind, so I don’t think she’d be offended by pointing out that the play is all about her. Although there are conversations with others, the perspective is Ace’s alone and the play all about the character. The limitations are obvious… but what a character! Brace has written a role to adore and, importantly, laugh with rather than at.

From small observations, like the way vodka and coke is like coke but not as nice and more expensive, to her frank questions about why people are so obsessed with sex, it is hard not to fall in love with Ace. Maybe I’m biased… I’ve also wondered why people like nightclubs. But as well as being quirky, Brace writes about the sense of touch very well – as the text’s aim is to open discussion and understanding of asexuality, this is an important addition.

Much of the character’s power comes from an excellent performance from Tiffany Marina Pearmund, who has the show’s kooky yet also down-to-earth comedy down to perfection. You feel for Ace, young love never runs smooth. But the lack of drama here is a brave, smart move (Ace is too sensible to get too worked up) that shows a distinctive voice behind the show. Brace’s direction is snappy and strict with his own writing. That’s Ace has a justified confidence; it shows us something different and it shows it well.

Until 17 March 2023

“Marjorie Prime” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Given that it deals with dementia, grief and artificial intelligence it’s not a surprise that Jordan Harrison’s play is fairly hard work. But given that there’s little so little action in the piece, Marjorie Prime packs a remarkable punch. Tightly written, fraught conversations lead to a chilling conclusion, which I suspect was the inspiration for the whole show.

Although the 2014 play has already been a hit – and a film – plot spoilers are especially tricky as so much of the piece’s power come from its twists and structure. It doesn’t seem too naughty to say the show opens with Marjorie and her ‘Prime’ – a robot that looks like her husband 50 years ago and is learning to be like him to aid her memory. Creeped out yet?

Harrison is light on the science behind AI, and some might like more explanation – or even more exploration of problems that, surely, come with the very idea. The technology is accepted (which is probably an accurate prediction) and doesn’t follow a cliché of becoming evil. Richard Fleeshman seems underused in the robotic role, but his calm performance is entirely appropriate. Likewise, Dominic Dromgoole’s cool direction appreciates the play’s tone. Understatement is fine… this is all scary enough in its own right.

Tony Jayawardena and Nacy Carroll

How AI impacts on Marjorie, her daughter, Tess, and son-in-law, Jon, leads to troubled characters and excellent performances. Taking the title role, Anne Reid gives a brilliant portrayal of someone suffering from dementia, which is all the more moving through flashes of humour. The complicated relationship between Marjorie and her daughter results in a passionate performance from Nancy Carroll that almost steals the show. Tony Jayawardena gives a further fine portrayal as Jon, who ends up haunted by the past, too. Let’s not say how.

The characters are, oddly, unsympathetic, despite what they are going through – it’s a surprising move, skilfully done, but adds to the piece’s cold tone. Problems with memories and how personal identity is formed might be a little predictable given the scenario; the script almost wants to move on from the themes. The result is that the play relies on its intriguing conclusion. And here is a plot spoiler – Harrison’s unexpected idea about what happens to AI when we are no longer around makes for a brilliant scene. I’m just not sure much else about the play is that memorable.

Until 6 May 2023

Photos by Manuel Harlan