Category Archives: Uncategorised

“The Comeback” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Comedy double acts have a distinct appeal to British audiences that funny men Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen know all about. The clever duo tap into a peculiarly nostalgic appeal – and their considerable chemistry – to write and perform a show that is funny and sweet.

AKA The Pin, Ashenden and Owen have a gentle style that plays on humility and sensitivity. Puns and touches of the ridiculous are light and make Owen’s character appealing, while Ashenden’s skill at delivering deadpan lines is strong.

The duo and their show gesture toward audience participation. You’ve got to expect a little… but there’s nothing scary here. A different guest star each evening (an impressive rota), creates a sense of expectation – who will you see?

Also taking on the roles of Jimmy and Sid, two older performers whose comeback tour the pair are the warm-up act for, proves less successful. Little effort is made to convey the age of these secondary characters and you can’t help wondering if stronger actors could do more. But the roles are written well and the older act get laughs of their own. It’s nice to note the duo’s respect for their elders… even as their characters take advantage to try and further their careers.

It is with the plot of The Comeback that the show stands out as more than just stand-up comedy. Mayhem ensues as both acts become keen to impress a Hollywood director in the audience. Yes, it’s silly, but the back stage shenanigans are well done and the fun with props emphasises theatricality.

A thoughtful conflict between young and old – both ambitious about their careers – adds weight to The Comeback. Both acts aim to be true to themselves and to retain a spirit to their performances in a manner that ends up surprisingly touching.

Until 25 July 2021

www.thecomebackcomedy.co.uk

“From Here” at Chiswick Playhouse

As a return to the stage continues, Red Piano Productions commands respect for its efforts. This latest show, written under lockdown constraints, has had rehearsals and its press night plagued by the ping of Covid alerts (sincerest wishes that those informed are safe and well). And then the rains came. Undaunted, with a die-hard if damp audience, the show still went on. Bravo.

Writers Lucy Ireland and Ben Barrow stepped into the shoes of Nicola Espallardo and Aiden Harkins. Performers themselves, they did an excellent job. Fellow cast members Grace Mouat and Andrew Patrick-Walker handled the last-minute substitutions superbly. There’s no doubting the spirit and commitment of all and the atmosphere generated. The question remains as to whether the show is any good.

As a showcase for Barrow and Ireland, From Here works hard to impress. The songs cover a variety of topics and, by including lots of characters, have an eye on performers attracting attention, too (Mouat and Patrick-Walker certainly take every opportunity on offer). But the result is painfully effortful. The portfolio feel (aimed at agents and casting directors?) just isn’t entertaining for an average audience.

A song cycle rather than a musical, attempts to hold From Here together (with a weak reprise and poetry based around job interviews) fail to convince. There are songs about dreams, homes, careers and romances arriving thick and fast. The result comes close to being messy. Director Annabelle Hollingdale focuses on individual numbers with some nice touches but there’s no effort to bring coherence to the piece.

Regrettably, the songs are nearly all treated with the same sentimentality and seriousness. Attempts at humour are poor and predictable. Picnicking couples proposing and complaining flatmates, let alone a student looking forward to going back home, mean there is little edge. The writing is competent but is a toothless affair that never challenges its audience.

There are encouraging moments. A song about life online rings true with some strong detail. And Mouat has a good time with the only number approaching big, The English Teacher’s Soliloquy. Possibly, problems lie with the concept that attempts to guide the show: the idea of a conflict between perfect endings and new beginnings, which has potential but creates no tension. The overly tentative conclusion is that a “middle ground” is needed. Not a bad approach to life, maybe, but too close to a call for mediocrity. And a dire base for theatre: a disappointing result for such hard work.

Until 7 August 2021

www.chiswickplayhouse.co.uk

Photo Lucy Gray

“Be More Chill” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Joe Iconis’ musical knows its early teen audience well and its soundtrack has been a phenomenal success. Based on the novel for young adults by Ned Vizzini, with the show’s book by Joe Tracz, its “loser” hero Jeremy takes a pill containing a computer that will make him popular. The free-will twist has thankfully struck a chord with its young demographic. My question is, can the show please a larger crowd as well as its intended cohort?

There are limitations to the high school musical genre. Be More Chill follows a formula and has the usual earnestness, with the extra irony of telling you how important it is to relax. And there’s an expected cheeky edge that isn’t as funny as it would like to be. Take the school play (the obligatory public event for the finale) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… with zombies – it gets a laugh but, if you’re my age, you’ve probably seen that production for real. 

Stewart Clarke as The Squip in Be More Chill
Stewart Clarke as The Squip

Problems carry through to director Stephen Brackett’s production. The silliness in the scenario is embraced but is checked by the undoubted, essential, sincerity. Taking the teenagers’ problems seriously is important but sits uneasily with the camp nonsense. There is fun – credit to Stewart Clarke as ‘The Squip’, the nanotechnology performed larger than life – but you can’t escape a sense of trying too hard.

Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan

But there are no complications with the music – look at those download figures! Iconis’ lyrics are good and the songs entertaining. There’s plenty of variety and adventurous touches while electronica is kept under control. Every number is a big one (on stage, a little overwhelming) and the whole cast get good turns. From Millie O’Connell, in a relatively small role, showing strong comedy skills, to Blake Patrick Anderson’s show-stopping number Michael in the Bathroom: he gives that soundtrack a run for its money… music is better live!

Miracle Chance and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Miracle Chance and Scott Folan

The characters and performances are strong. The lead part of Jeremy is a true star role, studiously written as ‘relatable”, which Scott Folan gives his all to. Barely off the stage, Folan manages that balance between funny and sincere. And it’s impossible not to be won over by his love interest, the admirably independent Christine. She loves the theatre, so we love her, and the performance by Miracle Chance is suitably adorable. 

There are many parallels to draw with another teen hit, Dear Evan Hansen – about a troubled teen in a crazy situation – that Iconis surely has mixed feelings about. Avoiding numbers for parents (there’s only half of one that Christopher Fry does well with) seems a sensible move. And taking itself slightly less seriously, with Brackett’s help, also helps. Be More Chill has no room for cynicism, and a light touch is when the show becomes truly winning. Relax and you’ll like it, whatever your age.

Until 5 September 2021

www.bemorechillmusical.com

“Pippin” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Among the many devotees of Stephen Schwartz’s musical, originally written in 1967, director Steven Dexter is an expert. Having staged the show at a pop-up venue last year (a boon between lockdowns), Dexter is back with his hippie-inspired version of the piece. Bigger and just as accomplished, this intelligent take on the Summer of Love does Pippin proud.

I’m still not a fan of the show. Yes, it has great songs. Although the score is contrived. And Roger O. Hirson’s book has wit, even if the humour is dated. But this story of Charlemagne’s son, presented by ‘Players’ who form a show within a show, is a tricky affair: a cautionary tale too close to reactionary in its suspicion of dreams and ambition.

Any reservations aren’t shared by Dexter or his eight energetic cast members. Akin to Pippin’s search for meaning, this production has a “goal and a plan”. And it is well executed. More serious than you might expect, considering the Players’ promises of what we are about to see, the production has more magic than merriment. Take the performance of Ian Carlyle, who makes for a sinister and in-command Lead Player, there’s an appropriately dark edge to proceedings.

Genevieve Nicole in Pippin
Genevieve Nicole

With strong performances from the (not-so-well-written) women in Pippin’s life, we are never allowed to forget they are Players, too. The effect is cold. Genevieve Nicole gets the most out of her big number – she’s super as Pippin’s let-it-all-hang-out grandma. While Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the stepmother manipulates events at court in style. It’s only Natalie McQueen, as Catherine, who really cares for our hero and makes the show’s sweet love song, with lots of laughs, enjoyable.

Ryan Anderson in Pippin
Ryan Anderson

The big danger is that Pippin himself becomes something of a puppet. Arguably he is exactly that and Dexter makes the case forcefully. And, who really likes Pippin anyway? Schwartz wanted him to check his privilege half a century ago! More credit to the show’s lead, Ryan Anderson, who get as much sympathy as he can for the character. Genuine emotion comes late (the penny drops – that’s why I’m not a fan) and, when it arrives, Anderson does well.

It is with dancing that Anderson, and the whole cast, excel. Choreographer Nick Winston comes into his own with smart moves, superbly executed. Engaging with each song, adding depth and interest, there’s extraordinary insight into the characters. Winston’s work sculpts the roles. With a nice big space, staged in the round, the dancing is the most joyous part of the show and, too frequently, the most emotional. It’s with the movement in the production that this Pippin moves.

Until 14 August 2021

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Edward Johnson

“Bach & Sons” at the Bridge Theatre

The biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach that informs Nina Raine’s new play is interesting. And a star turn from Simon Russell Beale as the musical great makes this play entertaining. But, despite director Nicholas Hytner’s valiant efforts to tell the story, the playwright’s ambitions become a problem.

Raine and Russell Beale – he really is fantastic – make sure we enjoy a character both angry and vulnerable, with a sharp tongue and quick wit. An obsession with “order in all things” and his religiosity show a complex character. All good stuff. But the contrasts in Bach’s temperament find a too-fast parallel in discussions of his work.

The debate about life and art is held, noisily, with his sons – Wilhelm and Carl – composers moving into a new era and men living in their father’s shadow. But it’s the former, rather than a family drama, that is focused on. These sons almost disappear in the discussion Raine wants to start. And the ideas aren’t new or elaborated on particularly well. It’s only the sincerity in the delivery of the argument, from Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin, that makes any of this interesting.

Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin in Bach & Sons photo by Manuel Harlan
Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin

There is more Raine starts to investigate – the idea that a great artist doesn’t have to be a good man. It’s a notion that seems common sense to me but is increasingly debated, so input is welcome. Bach’s family suffers from his obsessions with telling the truth. His wives most of all. There are strong performances from Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as Mrs Bach 1 & 2. Raine has written fulsome roles that make these scenes more successful.

Raine tries to mix the high-flown ideas on art with down-to-earth comments (mostly about weight), but the efforts feel like a gesture. Saying one of Bach’s Passions was received like a “turd in a tureen” gets a laugh… but too briefly. Bach & Sons does build in power, there are moving moments with Russell Beale’s uncanny ability to show his character aging. But all the discussions of music and meaning, counterpoint and chaos, end up close to platitudes. The result is a piece that is disappointingly one note.

Until 11 September 2021

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Under Milk Wood” at the National Theatre

Poetry on stage is never easy. And when Dylan Thomas’s text comes with the legacy of a famous reading (Richard Burton, no less) a new production becomes even trickier. Lyndsey Turner’s brave attempt benefits from a star draw and strong performances from a large cast, but struggles to deliver anything new or to please old fans.

The big idea is to start the play within a care home. Additional material is provided by Siân Owen. Our narrator (Michael Sheen) jogs the memory of his dementia-suffering father (Karl Johnson). Thomas’s themes of memory and mortality are clear. But this preface (how could it be considered anything else?) makes the show longer than needed. And an hour and three quarters without an interval and wearing a mask feels very long indeed.

Maybe you have the patience. But while the show feels lengthy, the delivery – undoubtedly impressive – is too often rushed. And this is not an easy text to follow. Turner, with the help of movement director Imogen Knight, has taken the challenge of bringing a ‘play for voices’ to the stage vigorously. The lives of those living in Milk Wood come and go with alarming speed.

It’s easy to enjoy the cast, who take on the roles of villagers as “one spring day” goes by. I’d single out Alan David as making me laugh the most, while Siân Phillips manages to convey different ages of characters quite magically. There are nice touches with minimal props and excellent costume changes (bravo, set and costume designer Merle Hensel). Emotional moments between father and son are highlighted by the issue of alcoholism, and the “always open” Sailors Arms pub is a vivid presence within the play.

Thomas was not nostalgic. You can imagine the temptation… all those simple lives in an easier past. There is charm and humour here but, admirably, Turner avoids rose tints. A call to observe the balance between seeing the best and worst sides of people has weight as a result.

Sheen can command a stage. And he sounds fantastic. But with a show this dark – literally – and often pin-drop-quiet, it’s all too easy to slip from the level of concentration he brings to the role. The “noise of the hush” is an exquisite phrase to describe the life of this community… the trouble is that I heard a snore above it more than once. This production is an achievement on the part of its cast. Unfortunately, it requires a feat of endurance for an audience.

Until 24 July 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Romeo and Juliet” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It’s great to be back in the theatre, especially at my favourite outdoor venue. Last year’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blessed break between lockdowns I’m still grateful for. But even loving the location, and welcoming the opening of a new season, this production isn’t going to set anybody’s summer on fire.

At just over an hour and half, director Kimberley Sykes’ version of Shakespeare’s tragic love story is speedy and serves as an effective introduction to the play. Being used to interpretations (with different times and locations), you might find this no-nonsense version, with no tricks or twists, a relief. But there’s also a sense of something remiss in such a stripped back show.

Take Naomi Dawson’s scaffolded design. This is a set that has its moment… no spoilers here. But is it worth the wait? For most of the show the cast seem lost, running around and providing the audience with little sense of a space inhabited (Juliet’s balcony is deliberately ill-defined). Giving small attention to Prince Escalus adds to a sense of characters out of any time or place.

One conceit Sykes does introduce is to have characters who die leave the stage and join the audience. But these ghostly presences in the stalls add little. And a break in the logic ends up frustrating – Juliet undergoes the same experience, raising from the dead, after taking her sleeping draft. But of course, she isn’t dead.

Regrettably, this is a production it is hard not to damn with faint praise. The performances are competent and the delivery clear. Isabel Adomakoh Young and Joel MacCormack take the title roles and acquit themselves well. There might be more romance, but leads are good in scenes with Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Friar Lawrence. There’s also an impressive Mercutio to enjoy in Cavan Clarke’s controlled performance.

There just isn’t anything remarkable here, so the overall impression is of a perfunctory production. But let’s end on a high note, with Giles Thomas’ music for the show. Combining dance with a suggestion of Vaughan Williams, the score adds romance and tension managing to be noticeable while never overpowering the action. Thomas’ work is excellent and provides the show with a much-needed highlight.

Until 24 July 2021

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Jane Hobson

“Bad Nights and Odd Days” at the Greenwich Theatre

Director James Haddrell and his talented cast bring to the stage four shorts by Caryl Churchill that fans of the playwright will not want to miss. Two pieces tackle the near future and two are relationship dramas. The combination shows Churchill’s breadth of imagination and skills effectively.

The first oddity comes in a piece called Seagulls. Mrs Blair is a “new species of person” who has telekinetic powers. But this isn’t the X-Men. Having introduced the preternatural, Churchill’s ironically mild mannered heroine (depicted conscientiously by Kerrie Taylor) really only wants to feel wanted. A contrast with the ambitions of her friend and now manager, ably performed by Gracy Goldman, broadens out this neat, satisfying sketch.

Closer to sci-fi, set in “The Londons” at a time of civil unrest and pollution, the title of Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen indicates what interests most in this piece. The dialogue for the character of Vivian, superbly delivered by Verna Vyas, contains skilful repetitions that create and sustain an unsettling air of their own. Supported by Dan Gaisford and Bonnie Baddoo, as an estranged father and daughter, the piece from 1971 suffers from being a now generic dystopia.

Verna Vyas, Bad Nights and Odd Days, Greenwich Theatre (credit Lidia Crisafulli)
Pictured top, Gracy Goldman and Kerrie Taylor. Above, Verna Vyas

Moving on to the nocturnal

Arguably the most ambitious piece is Three More Sleepless Nights. This is a trio of scenes, with dysfunctional relationships, each tackled in a very different manner. Firstly arguing; with characters played by Paul McGann and Gracy Goldman speaking over each other throughout. Then a scene with hardly a word; apart from the synopsis of films, that leaves the audience with a horrific image. Characters played by Gaisford and Goldman return in a finale that ties together themes of fear and dependence. For me, what the three scenes really have in common is a technical ability on the part of the cast – hugely impressive.

Kerrie Taylor and Paul McGann, Bad Nights and Odd Days, Greenwich Theatre (credit Lidia Crisafulli)
Kerrie Taylor and Paul McGann

There is such diversity in Churchill’s work that any favourite amongst the four is a personal choice. But Abortive strikes me as the most provocative and exciting. Taylor and McGann perform this twisty story of an affair, which resulted in a pregnancy, impeccably. Crammed with questions, there is also a character who does not appear to consider. Invited into the family home, the troubled Billie is a vivid and intriguing presence who haunts the couple. Wealth and status are conveyed effortlessly alongside complex motivations and considerable pain.

None of these shorts is that short! So the programme is a huge endeavour on Haddrell’s part, not least the intelligent curation. If all the pieces don’t hold equal interest, contrasting them is stimulating. And the strong production of all combines to make Bad Nights and Odd Days a time to remember.

Until 10 July 2021

www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Staircase” at the Southwark Playhouse

As an early example of representing homosexuality on stage, Charles Dyer’s 1966 play is noteworthy. The piece had success in the West End and on Broadway, despite censorship.  This revival directed by Tricia Thorns serves as a tribute to the playwright, who died this year, but only manages to confirm the play’s historical interest. 

As a study of Harry and Charlie, two “small time backstreet hairdressers”, together for twenty years, the promise is an insight into lives not usually recounted. And a reminder of crueler times – the men have to hide their relationship and Charlie is in trouble with the law after an impromptu drag performance. The business is in danger too, since Harry has alopecia (although the best barber I ever had was bald). Unfortunately the men’s love-hate relationship has more hate than romance and is difficult to care about.

Even now it’s unusual to see older gay men on stage and the talk of age being a “smelly thing” is thought-provoking. The dialogue is often interesting, especially Harry’s “silver flow of oratory”. The mix of slang and obscure references is stimulating. The convoluted descriptions are articulate, yet I found it hard to decide how funny Staircase is supposed to be. 

There’s plenty of detail in Dyer’s script but the delivery raises questions. Paul Rider, who takes the better written part of Harry, is more confident and entertaining to watch. John Sackville does well with his character’s vanity and a suggestion of serious delusions (are both characters on stage different personas of one man?) but is too fraught and uncomfortable throughout. Dyer’s play on names and the briefest of suicide scenes create confusion. Thorns’ unflinching direction maintains the bickering relentlessly. Despite all the pain and loneliness, and the potentially serious outcomes, the men’s arguments become tiresome quibbles. Staircase never ascends beyond being a dated curiosity.

Until 17 July 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Phil Gammon

“Shedding a Skin” at the Soho Theatre

EM Forster fans, as I am, are sure to adore Amanda Wilkin’s play. The story of Myah’s journey to find herself and a place in her community has a broad appeal reminiscent of Forster’s dictum to “only connect”. Like the novelist Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Wilkin adopts the maxim to our own times and uses it for her purposes. What good company Wilkin keeps.

To be clear, Shedding a Skin had me hooked before the thought of Forster entered my head. Myah is a great creation from the start. As her “triad” of work, love and home collapses – seeing her storm out of a “corporate hell hole” in style, and end her relationship and tenancy – it’s impossible not to feel empathy for her troubles. Especially when all problems are related with a great sense of humour.

Plenty of Myah’s appeal comes from the fantastic performance Wilkin herself gives. Embodying the “bit of a nerd”, who giggles too loudly and overshares, with such charm, her firm comedic skill and strong stage presence hold the attention. This is a relatively long monologue that really speeds by.

Surprisingly, Myah isn’t even the heroine of the show. Her new flat mate, the elderly Mildred, is carefully depicted and becomes a tangible presence. Dealing with a card of “house rules” and plenty of forthright opinions provides laughs. And, as the story unfolds, Mildred is developed marvellously – from a figure that reminds Myah of her childhood into someone who connects her to heritage and community. What could have been just a foil becomes an inspiration.

Further reasons for the success of this Verity Bargate Award-winning script are down to Elayce Ismail’s firm direction – the show’s pace is strong without feeling rushed – and Rosanna Vize’s clever set of blinds and fabrics that are slowly stripped away. Shedding – mostly of expectations it seems – sounds painful, but is made celebratory by the production.

Short voiceovers punctuate Myah’s narrative, retelling instances of resolution and defiance in different parts of the world. Certainly evocative, coming progressively closer geographically to the action on stage, the additions are arguably unnecessary. Myah and the deep truths that Wilkin appreciates are enough for me. The search for connections and empathy between generations, races and sexualities is a stirring endeavour that had me in happy tears by the end of the show.

Until 17 July with a live streamed performance on the 15th July 2021

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray